Another Belize bus war is threatening to rear its ugly head on the nation’s highways, as a group of former Novelo workers who had formed their own bus cooperative say that they will fight to maintain their operations in light of a threatened takeover by their former employers.
Reports to our newspaper are that over the past weekend there were a series of confrontations between the rival bus operators, and some people in the industry fear that things will escalate this coming weekend, placing the safety of patrons and drivers at risk.
One of the rival entities is the Belize Bus Owners Cooperative (BBOC), which was formed by a group of ex-Novelo employees after Novelo Bus Line fell into receivership for failing to meet almost $50 million in debt, and was later closed down in December 2005 when operations were deemed to be no longer viable.
The other is National Transport Services Limited (NTSL), the new company formed by the Novelo brothers, David and Antonio, after Novelo Bus Line was taken over by the bankers.
In an odd turn of events, the Novelos’ new company has become bankers to these ex-employees, and now, after they have failed to meet their financial obligations, the Novelos have moved to take over their operations. But the move has met firm resistance from over 20 coop members, who say they will not sit back and let that happen.
NTSL principal, David Novelo, told Amandala today that because the BBOC failed to honor its agreement to pay for 12 buses they had been leasing from his company, NTSL, and to repay money they had borrowed from Novelo to pay their bills, his company NTSL has now assumed control of the cooperative. While Novelo declined to tell us how much money was outstanding to NTSL, we have otherwise been informed that the NTSL is making a $300,000 claim against the BBOC.
Isabel Chan, BBOC’s chairman, and Anna Young, BBOC’s treasurer, say that they will challenge the Novelo takeover, and apart from ensuring that their buses continue to be on the road, they are planning to take up the matter in court.
The very legality of the agreement under which Novelo is now claiming control of the cooperative is in question, Hugo Miranda, Acting Registrar of Cooperatives, told Amandala this afternoon.
Miranda said that he would not be able to comment on the specifics of the case at this time, because he has yet to confer with Solicitor General Edwin Flowers on the matter.
All our efforts to reach Transport Commissioner Mike Godoy today were futile; however, chairman of the Transport Board, Cedric Borland, told us that road service permits are non-transferable. He explained that in the event that another entity acquires a bus business that has current permits, it is technically legal for the new entity to operate those permits under the name of the company they are taking over. If the entity taking over wants to have the permits in its name, the other entity has to ask transport authorities to cancel its permits so that the interested party can then get the permits in its name.
Chan told us this evening that the current executive of the BBOC, on which he sits, is still in possession of the road service permits, and they are not giving them up.
Today, Novelo’s NTSL issued a press release claiming that because BBOC did not meet their debts to the NTSL, “the BBOC has transferred its operations to NTSL with all rights and obligations,” including the road service permits.
The man who executed the agreement in question is former chairman, Wayne Myers, who some members have accused of selling them out to the Novelos. The current executive told us that they don’t have a copy of the lease agreement, and that members never approved it. Myers resigned in April, and the current executive said that before his departure to work for the Novelos, he effectively handed over the BBOC to them.
We were unable to reach Myers for comment when we tried calling him today, but he had previously conceded that under his tenure, he had entered into an agreement with the Novelos, but only because they needed the buses to continue servicing their runs.
David Novelo told us that even though that agreement was signed in February, BBOC has not made a single payment. Apart from that, Novelo said, when BBOC was unable to pay its bills to Social Security and SOL (formerly Shell), the Novelos loaned them money.
Novelo said that two weeks ago they began managing BBOC, but currently, he said, it appears that two BBOC’s exist – the one he claims he is controlling and the one Chan claims he is controlling. There are two sets of buses claiming to be BBOC bues, and that is where the contention threatens to get dangerous.
Young said that when BBOC placed buses to service its runs last weekend, Novelo placed three to four buses on the very same runs.
Novelo said, however, that since the weekend he has pulled the BBOC buses that he had repossessed off the road. He does not want to run them for the time being, because he wants to avoid any trouble on the road, because he is sure that if anything goes wrong, the Novelos would be the first to get the blame. He added that the NTSL would assert what it believes to be its right to take over BBOC’s operations.
According to Novelo, Myers and about 28 BBOC members are now working for him.
Chan, the current BBOC chairman, said that as a result their membership has declined from 56 to just over 20.
Chan is one of two drivers who are still leasing buses from Atlantic Bank. Late last year, Atlantic Bank had threatened to repossess buses that were being leased to coop members. These buses were first repossessed from Novelo Bus Line, after the Novelos defaulted on their debt to the bank. Under Myers, BBOC decided to park the Atlantic buses, and they later entered into a lease agreement with the new Novelo company.
At the time, several members complained to Amandala that this was merely setting the stage for a Novelo take over of the cooperative. Myers had denied the allegations that the Novelos had paid him off to sink the coop.
At the same time, members had questions upon questions on what was being done with the monies they were paying into the cooperative. They said that they were making payments on the buses that should have gone to the bank, but the bank never got the funds.
The complaints of missing money, totaling $176,000 last October, had gone to Miranda at the Department of Cooperatives. There was a second report after members noticed that their bank balance had further dwindled and a series of cheques written against their account were bouncing like ping pong balls.
Miranda told us today that there is still no finality in those investigations.
Chan said that to date they have not heard anything concrete on those investigations.
Since the cooperative members began to organize in early 2006, they have been plagued with infighting and allegations against members believed to have personal and conflicting interests that threatened to undermine the very viability of the organization.
The executive members we spoke with today expressed the need for Government officials in the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Cooperatives to look more seriously into their situation, because for them it is about their bread and butter and some hard earned investments in an industry that they love.
Chan said that while he has not been able to speak with Transport Minister Joe Coye since the Novelos have moved to take over BBOC, he has spoken with Deputy Prime Minister Vildo Marin, under whose portfolio the cooperative falls. He said that yesterday Marin promised to help them.
Novelo informed us that on Tuesday, July 3, the management of his company, NTSL, met with Minister Coye and other transport officials to discuss the transition of the operations of BBOC and NTSL. Chan said that the BBOC executive, too, was scheduled to have a meeting with transport officials on that very day, but that meeting never materialized. They have expressed concerns that transport officials would have met with the Novelos about their affairs in a session where they were not present.