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News Report: "Chamber chair blasts tax portal as ‘complete mess"

Published by Neil Hartnell, Tribune Business, January 26th, 2024

THE Chamber of Commerce’s chairman yesterday blasted the Government’s new online tax payment portal as “a complete mess” with frustrated businesses receiving no relief from deadlines or fines.

Timothy Ingraham, speaking on a panel discussion at the Bahamas Business Outlook conference, said companies who missed this week’s VAT payment filing date still face the threat of financial sanctions as there has been no confirmation these will be waived or deadlines extended despite the multiple known challenges with the new system.

Questioning why the Department of Inland Revenue had timed the upgraded portal’s launch for one of its busiest months, given the end-January deadline for Business Licence filings, the Chamber chief said it appeared that “no thought was given as to how this is going to work” when tax-paying companies tried to long-in from New Year’s Day.

Asked by panel moderator, Christel Sands-Feaste, the Higgs & Johnson attorney and partner, whether he thought policymakers “appreciate the necessity” to make it easier to do business in The Bahamas and the “negative impact” this is having on the private sector, Mr. Ingraham replied: “An emphatic ‘no’. I don’t think they appreciate this.

“There is such a clear example of this close to us: The roll-out of the tax reporting portal recently. And so the tax authorities, on January 1, decided to roll-out a new reporting portal. It’s been a complete mess, OK, to put it mildly. Wouldn’t it have been better to have rolled this out softly three months ago and let people start to get used to it?

“No information was given on this. There should have been training in the lead up to this to tell people how it’s going to work. There was no thought given to when taxpayers log-on in January how this is going to work.”

Giving a practical example of how tax portal woes have impacted the Bahamian private sector’s ease of doing business, Mr Ingraham said: “This morning I got a message from one of our members. She has a few companies to administer. She got one company registered. She used the same process she was going through, but could not get the other companies registered.

“So now, rather than doing something productive, she has to spend her time trying to reach the officials at the Department of Inland Revenue. There’s no response coming, no response to the e-mails, so she’s frustrated. She cannot get done what she needs to get done.”

The Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation’s (BCCEC) chairman added that many companies remain anxious that they will be fined for missing Monday’s VAT payment and returns filing deadline, with many complaining that they were unable to make electronic payments via the tax portal while others have yet to receive their new log-in credentials following the upgrades.

Dexter Fernander, the Department of Inland Revenue’s operations manager, admitted to this newspaper earlier this week that the new tax portal is suffering “growing pains” and experiencing “infrastructure issues at peak times” such as the date VAT and other filings are due.

While the Government’s main revenue agency is asking the system’s developer to provide “more bandwidth”, so that it can better cope with use and demand at deadline time, he added that too many companies “wait for the last day” before they pay their VAT and other taxes.

And Mr Fernander said complaints that companies cannot pay online are “not a good excuse” when they are aware that two other options - wire transfers or a physical visit to a Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) branch - are open to them. He promised, though, that the Department of Inland Revenue will address legitimate concerns with the functioning of its new tax portal system as they are brought to its attention.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ingraham was joined by Mrs. Sands-Feaste in pleading for greater certainty, consistency and continuity in government taxation policy. They warned that it has reached the point where businesses are waiting with bated breath every last Wednesday in May, when the Government’s annual Budget is unveiled, fearing they will be hit with new/ and or increased taxes or changes to existing regimes.

“We need the taxes taken away. We need this consistent. Every June everyone is sitting around waiting for the latest thing to drop,” Mr Ingraham said in relation to the Budget.

#“We need the Government to understand that when you’re extracting it from the business community you’re preventing growth in the business community, you’re preventing them from hiring more people, preventing them from doing what we need in this country, expanding the tax base.”

These concerns were also echoed by Mrs. Sands- Feaste, who added: “Every June, the perception in the business community is..... there’s always a sense of anticipation that on June 1 we’ll hear about new taxes or policy changes that impact the cost of doing business in the middle of the financial year for many businesses as they’re effective on July 1.

“In many instances, businesses don’t have sufficient time to comply or understand what it means. It’s costly to comply, and compliance requirements are onerous. I want to say to the policymakers that businesses want to comply but, in many instances, they don’t understand how to comply or, as Tim has pointed out, they cannot comply.

“Businesses want to pay their Business Licences, taxes but they can’t. So I want the policymakers to hear what we’re saying. We want to comply. Businesses want to pay their taxes as long as the requirements are clear for what businesses have to do.”

Mr Ingraham added that further taxation-related disruption often occurs every five years with the election cycle when incoming administrations decide to dismantle policies and reforms implemented by their predecessors, thus presenting further obstacles to business continuity.

“We have five-year cycles where something happens today, a change is made and, in five years, it’s changed [again],” he said. “I don’t know when to pay my taxes, where to pay them, what taxes I have to pay. That has to stop. It needs to be consistent, it needs to be settled.”

Mr Ingraham also urged reform at the Registrar General’s Department, adding: “I’m sure if I say Registry Department it’s going to trigger some of the attorneys in the office and this building today. Whenever you deal with that department......”

Ryan Pinder KC, the attorney general, has pledged that much-needed reforms to upgrade both the registry’s civil and corporate side are underway with its records currently being migrated to a new platform. The registry is critical for company incorporations and name registrations, a vital function for financial services and the wider private sector, as well as the real estate industry on the recording of conveyances.

“There also has to be more transparency with government finances,” the Chamber chairman urged yesterday. “People don’t mind paying more taxes when they see they are get- ting value for money and, right now, there is a sense that we’re not getting value for money. We could be getting it, but we’re not getting the information to tell us. We need to see that as well.”

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