KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – The Unity Labour Party administration was Monday still in damage control mode two weeks after telecommunications company LIME blocked incoming and outgoing call to several government departments, including police stations and clinics, because of non-payment.
“It doesn’t embarrass me in the slightest,” Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves said at a press briefing Monday, noting criticism from the parliamentary opposition and citizens.
He said that he did not know why LIME blocked incoming and outgoing calls to government telephones but reiterated that there must be some reconciliation of the EC$2.6 million that the company said the government owes, EC$1.5 million more than the government said LIME is due.
Gonsalves reiterated that his government would not be paying any bills that are not properly reconciled. “So the government officials have their work to do and so, too, LIME. … I don’t know how they can send a bill, which is EC$1.5 million more, according to what my senior public servants tell me. At least $1.5 million more.”
He sad that LIME had sent to the office of a public servant one month’s bill that included a 27-hour overseas telephone call, costing EC$5,800.
“Obviously, a man can’t talk on the phone for 27 hours. He sent it back. … They conceded it’s a mistake and they will make the necessary correction. So you have all these kinds of problems,” he said, adding that citizens sometimes have problems with the bills the company sends to them.
“You don’t think you will have that multiplied across this government?” Gonsalves said, adding that he has “always been asking for reconciliation of these things and they have not been done”.
He said that the situation has got to the point where “LIME has acted the way they have acted”.
“I have no problem with them if they feel that they want to so act. But let us understand the position of the government and of the Prime Minister. I don’t know what prompted them to act in that way, but I am not displeased that they have acted that way,” he said, restating his initial comments on the issue.
“But they must appreciate that the government is not an NGO that you can just decide that you do what you want to do and then everything will come back fine and dandy that people will fall in line,” said Gonsalves.
“I am insisting that the public servants sort out this matter and it provides an opportunity, as I repeat, to stop the abuse and misuse of the telephone,” added the Prime Minister, who in the same press briefing said he had approved forensic audits of six international companies here because of “issues”.
Gonsalves, who also has ministerial responsibilities for taxation, however, said that he did not know which companies the Comptroller of Inland Revenue had requested be audited and added that he was “not accusing anybody of hiding or evading or avoiding taxes”.
He said that the telecommunications company — then Cable and Wireless — has been cutting off government phone since the 1990s.
“On this occasion, they decided to cut it off both ways (incoming and outgoing calls). And they did that for 24 hours. That’s perfectly in order if they feel they have their service. That is how they want to do it. They didn’t tell the prime minister anything. That’s fine. You notice I am not complaining because I am using it as an opportunity to put things right,” he said.
But local Manager of LIME had failed to secure a meeting with Gonsalves in the days leading up to the disconnections, which began at police stations two Saturdays ago and escalated to schools and clinic by the following Tuesday.
Gonsalves, however, noted that in a “completely unrelated” matter, “LIME has not always had its accounting arrangements in order”. He mentioned the “forensic examination” of the company’s taxes owed to the government soon after the Unity Labour Party administration came to office in 2001.
That audit found that the company owed EC$26 million in taxes for the preceding six years. Both parties settled on EC$18 million after negotiations.
Gonsalves said that senior public servants and LIME are trying to reconcile the monies owed to the company and that he was awaiting the outcome of the negotiations.