Public Infrastructure Minister David Patterson is again in hot water as the Berbice Bridge Company Inc (BBCI) has refuted claims he made that Government has offered to buyout ownership of the bridge company.
During an interview on State-owned NCN last weekend, Minister Patterson had disclosed that his Government has offered to purchase the ownership of the bridge from the BBCI.
However, the Bridge Company on Saturday said no such offer has been made at any time by Government.
“This is a completely irresponsible statement on the part of the Minister and a most unfortunate attempt to mislead the public,” the BBCI said.
This is not the first time the issue of buyout of the Berbice River Bridge has raised. Last year, outspoken political activist and former Presidential Advisor, Ramon Gaskin, had suggested a total buyout of the Bridge Company by Government so as to resolve the issue of rising tolls.
At the time, Guyana Times had reported that the BBCI— in which the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) has majority voting rights on the Board of Directors— was forced to push for the increase in tolls in order to protect its investment.
To this end, Gaskin had suggested that an alternative can be for Government and the NIS to solely own the bridge company, thus buying the shares from all the other shareholders.
The BBCI said on Saturday that it welcomes a “fair and reasonable” offer from Government. In fact, the company has already written the Public Infrastructure Minister for an urgent meeting to discuss Government’s proposed offer.
But the Berbice Bridge Company noted that efforts since last November to meet the Minister on the revision of the Concession Agreement have been futile.
In fact, the BBCI is accusing the Public Infrastructure Minister of making a number of false and disconcerting statements about the Berbice Bridge during the recent interview.
Minister Patterson had said the financial challenges that the Berbice Bridge Company is facing are no fault of his Government.
The BBCI, however, reminded that it is the coalition administration which has consistently refused to respect its contractual obligation to address the annual adjustments to the bridge toll required by the Concession Agreement between the State and the Bridge Company.
It noted that it had repeatedly requested to meet with the Minister, in writing, to discuss a revision of the Concession Agreement. In response, in a letter of November 19, 2018, the Minister informed the BBCI that his Ministry “in conjunction with the Ministry of Finance, will be appointing an International Financing Firm/Company to provide guidance and expert financial advice regarding the current status and proposal of the BBCI” and that his Ministry was available for a meeting.
However, some 10 months since promising to meet, there has been no word from Patterson.
In the meantime, the BBCI, in January and March of this year, again, wrote the Minister emphasising the urgency of the need to meet on the matter of the tolls and possible revision of the Concession Agreement. But the Bridge Company is yet to receive a response.
“The BBCI has heard absolutely nothing further from the Government with regard to the promised engagement of the International Financing Company,” it added.
To this end, the BBCI posited that instead of meeting, Government blocked it from increasing the toll and took over operations of the bridge.
“The Concession Agreement between the Government and the Bridge Company is a product of a public/private partnership, but instead of recognising its role as a partner, the Government refuses to meet and has preferred to take control of the bridge…,” the missive stated.
Last October, the BBCI had disclosed that the company is facing bankruptcy and as such, proposed to increase its tolls— as much as 300 per cent in some cases— to keep the Berbice Bridge afloat.
However, this was strongly opposed by Government, which called the toll hikes burdensome and draconian, and eventually, on November 5, 2018 took over operations of the facility to stop the BBCI’s increase from taking effect on November 12 of that year.
The Berbice Bridge Company has since challenged this move by Government and the Court has ordered Minister Patterson to give reasons for the decision to take over operations of the bridge. The matter is scheduled to be heard on October 18, 2019.
“True to form, even while the matter is proceeding before the court, the Minister has declared the Government’s intention of appealing the Court’s ruling should it not go in the Government’s favour. The Minister’s statement can, of course, be considered to be an attempt to intimidate the Court,” the BCCI contended.
Nevertheless, the Bridge Company said it remains available to meet with the Minister in good faith and in the public interest.