At a time when thousands of Virgin Islands residents are unemployed or otherwise struggling due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we are disturbed by the government’s failure to adequately account for the $62.9 million allocated for an economic stimulus package.
More than five months after Premier Andrew Fahie announced the initiative in May, it is unclear how much money has been spent and how exactly it was used. Leaders’ sporadic updates, however, suggest that no more than $12 million has gone directly to needy residents and businesses so far — and the actual tally could be much less.
The lack of transparency is particularly troubling given that the great majority of the money — about $57 million — came from the Social Security Board, which is an important safety net built up through generations of workers’ contributions.
Using SSB money for the stimulus was probably reasonable: The board’s remit does include funding initiatives that benefit the community. But leaders also have a responsibility to account clearly for how they spend SSB funds and other taxpayers’ money.
Of the stimulus programme’s many prongs, clear spending updates have been provided for only two so far. The first is the temporary unemployment programme: As of Sept. 17, $4.4 million of a total $10 million had been disbursed directly to unemployed and underemployed residents, Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley said in late September. Another $7.5 million, he noted at the time, was used to settle debts owed by the National Health Insurance programme — a move that was less a stimulus than a way for government to delay dealing with the longstanding problem of an unsustainable NHI system.
The status of the rest of the stimulus money is largely unclear. Since September, for instance, no update has been provided on the remaining $6.6 million in unemployment funds. And although officials have promised that 1,039 small businesses would receive about $6 million in grants, they have not confirmed how much has been handed out.
No substantive update has been provided about the $9 million allocated to repair hurricane-damaged homes, and only a few details have trickled out about a series of $1-$2 million initiatives targeting taxi drivers, hotels, farmers, fishers and other recipients.
The largest prong of the stimulus is a $17 million SSB spend to relaunch a pre-Irma housing project at Joes Hill — which, like the NHI payout, hardly qualifies as a “stimulus.” A contract was signed and work is under way, but it is unclear how much has been disbursed, and even basic details of the project — such as whether the SSB will recoup its costs after the “affordable” homes are sold — have not been explained in detail to the public.
Another $3.9 million was allocated from the consolidated fund for elected representatives to spend as they saw fit (arguably the worst idea included in the stimulus package), but no comprehensive breakdown has been provided, and the opposition leader said recently that not all of the money had been released by the government.
Presumably, at least some of the outstanding funds in the $62.9 million package have been spent, but many questions remain.
To be fair, some ministers have provided helpful updates. Besides his September announcements, Mr. Wheatley rightly explained the struggles faced by the unemployment programme. Deputy Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley also provided a recent update on the farmers’ and fishers’ grants, explaining that the initiative would start releasing money soon.
But these sporadic updates are not enough. Taxpayers deserve comprehensive information and regular updates about how their money is being spent through the stimulus programme.
The premier, then, should provide a full accounting straightaway. Individuals who received assistance need not be identified by name, but Mr. Fahie should provide detailed aggregate data of all expenditures down to the last dollar.
He should also disclose any delays and explain how and when they will be overcome.
If the premier refuses to provide this accounting, the SSB should step up to the plate. Until now, the agency has been largely silent on the stimulus package, but it has a responsibility to serve as custodian of contributors’ money and to publicly account for all spending.
The stimulus package is funded with the people’s money, and the people are crying.