BENECO camps agree to jointly settle unpaid dues amid standoff

BENECO camps agree to jointly settle unpaid dues amid standoff

Amid the leadership impasse in the Benguet Electric Cooperative (BENECO), the two opposing camps have agreed to work together in order to settle the unpaid dues of the electric cooperative with its power supplier which had already accumulated to P245 million as of June 2022.

Engr. Melchor Licoben, Board of Directors (BOD)-appointed general manager, said the unsettled dues had been the result of the frozen depository accounts of BENECO in different banks.

In a forum initiated by the Baguio City Council last Monday, both camps acceded to the city officials’ call to put aside their dispute and come up with mutually acceptable arrangements for the settlement of BENECO’s unpaid dues.

The city council’s Committee on Public Work, Transportation, and Traffic Legislation was tasked to mediate in the compromise talk between the two camps and submit a report to the city council within 30 days.

The councilors stressed that problems concerning the operations of the electric cooperative must be resolved urgently so as to prevent the possible stoppage of providing power services to the public.

According to Licoben, the electric cooperative’s bank accounts containing a total amount of 441 million had become inaccessible, affecting the operations of the electric cooperative including the settlement of payments to its power supplier, TeaM Energy.

He said the delay in payment may result in surcharges as stipulated in the contract and may jeopardize the efforts of the electric cooperative to renew its contract with TeaM Energy.

Atty. Esteban Somngi, BOD President, mentioned that the provision of educational, burial and medical assistance as part of the cooperative’s corporate social responsibilities had also been put on hold due to the inaccessibility of its bank accounts.

Not only that, employees’ benefits such as retirement pay are being withheld as a result of the freezing of the bank accounts, he added.

In his advisory issued on December 27, 2021, Licoben explained that Landbank of the Philippines (LBP) and the Philippine National Bank (PNB) changed the signatories and closed the accounts. Meanwhile, Development Bank of the Philippines stopped honoring Licoben and Somngi as signatories. Metrobank, Rang-ay, and Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI), on the other hand, decided to freeze the funds. The seventh bank, Summit Bank, sought the court’s intervention by filing a declaratory relief. 

The banks’ actions stemmed from the leadership dispute between Licoben and Atty. Marie Rafael who was appointed by the National Electrification Administration (NEA) as the electric cooperative’s general manager.

In their letter to the city officials dated July 22, 2022, the BENECO management, the board of directors, the BENECO Supervisors’ Association, and the BENECO Employees Labor Union assailed the camp of Rafael for allegedly ‘harassing’ the banks, causing these banks to either stop honoring Licoben and Somngi as authorized signatories or freeze the BENECO funds.

They also accused the other camp of illegally withdrawing P58 million from LBP, P2.6 million from PNB, and P8.5 million from BPI.

However, Atty. Matia Andres-Cascolan, Rafael’s spokesperson, dismissed the claims of Licoben’s camp as merely “speculative.”

She denied the allegation that the banks had received threats and claimed that the suspension of transactions with any party was instead an offshoot of the banks’ ‘internal policy.’

In an official statement issued last August 7 on social media, Rafael said the banks were only “exercising their mandate to safeguard their depositors’ financial accounts” and were “trying to seek redress from the courts who shall decide to whom they shall transact with or have the funds be released to.”

She pointed out that the bank accounts had been made inaccessible both to her and Licoben.

In response to the city council’s request for transparency, both camps agreed to submit to the council their audited financial reports in the past months and to furnish the body quarterly financial reports henceforth.

Councilor Jose Molintas advised both camps to avoid attacking each other on social media so as not to exacerbate existing problems.

On September 23, 2021, the House of Representatives adopted a resolution urging NEA- Board of Administrators to maintain a status quo in the leadership of BENECO until all issues on the selection of the electric cooperative’s general manager have been resolved.

The dispute in the BENECO leadership has been elevated to the local courts and the Court of Appeals. –Jordan G. Habbiling