Scenes like the above parade from 2019 will not be part of this year’s August Emancipation Festival, which has been scaled back due to Covid-19, but some less-crowded celebrations are nevertheless scheduled to proceed. (File Photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)

The Virgin Islands Festivals and Fairs Committee started out the year with a budget of $710,000, which later was upped to $1.3 million before expenditures ultimately topped $1.9 million, according to Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture Minister Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley.

Dr. Wheatley (R-D7) gave this and other updates about this year’s festivals last Thursday in the House of Assembly, outlining plans to cut costs but declining to answer a question about allegations of mismanagement.

In response to opposition members, Dr. Wheatley said that $590,000 was added to the original $710,000 budget for 2019 festivals, including the August Emancipation Festival and the Virgin Gorda Easter Festival, bringing it to $1.3 million.

He added that the $1.3 million included $312,551.31 in outstanding bills from 2018.

The VIFFC overran this $1.3 million budget by $633,708, he said, adding that this was less than the $652,200 overrun in 2016 “and smaller than overruns in a number of years in the past.” Part of the overrun, he reiterated, came from unpaid bills from 2018.

The additional funding allowed the VIFFC to pay the majority of vendors for this year’s festivals, as well as some from previous years, he said.

He added that a few vendors still had not been paid, and that his ministry was working on compensating them “shortly.”

$1.6m for 2019 events

According to the VIFFC’s preliminary financial report, he said, the estimated final cost of the festivals so far this year was $1,621,156.69, which he noted was less than the total cost in five out of the previous seven years.

Despite the overrun, he said he is committed to fiscal responsibility and had held a series of meetings on the matter.

“I am still not satisfied with the amount of money that is being spent for Festival,” he said. “I have, therefore, charged the Festivals and Fairs Committee to make recommendations for cost-saving measures.”

He added that he had asked the VIFFC to make cost-cutting recommendations in its final report, which he said will be submitted to Cabinet and tabled in HOA.

Asked by opposition member Mitch Turnbull (R-D2) to state the original budgeted amount for this year’s festivals broken down by location, Dr. Wheatley said that funding procedures for festivals had changed this year: Instead of the VIFFC giving subventions to individual sub-committees for each location, it handled all finances centrally from its official account.

Accordingly, he said, he was unable to provide the requested breakdown.

Allegations

Asked by Mr. Turnbull to address allegations of members resigning from committees because of “ill treatment and disrespect;” “mismanagement and misappropriation of funds” by leadership of the VIFFC; and “favouritism and preferential treatment of the international artist over our local artist,” Mr. Wheatley declined to answer.

Instead, he cited Standing Order 17(1)(f) which states, “A question shall not contain arguments, inferences, opinions, imputations, etc.,” and said he was “therefore unable to answer” the question “in its current form.”

Mr. Turnbull said he was “satisfied” with this answer and did not ask any further questions.

Missing records

Dr. Wheatley also repeated his claims made in past HOA sittings that he was unable to provide a detailed breakdown of expenditures for festivals under past administrations because of poor record-keeping. Last Thursday Opposition Leader Marlon Penn asked him for the financial figures for the VG Easter, East End/Long Look, Road Town and Carrot Bay festivities for the years 2003-2019.

Dr. Wheatley responded that reports from the VIFFC were submitted to Cabinet only for the years 2012, 2013 and 2015. He tabled a breakdown of the available budgeted allocations, government subventions, overruns, and total costs of festivals in a document that has not yet been made available to the press.

When Mr. Penn pressed him for a more detailed breakdown for this year’s festivals, Dr. Wheatley said it would be included in the VIFFC’s final report.


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