The government needs $8.3 million to get the territory’s airports back on track after the newly installed BVI Airports Authority board discovered “a rabbit hole of mismanagement, deception, profligacy, and quite possibly misappropriation of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money,” Premier Andrew Fahie alleged on July 16 in the House of Assembly.
“I call it a rabbit hole,” he said, “because it just keeps getting deeper, deeper and deeper, twisting and turning in unexpected and startling ways as if it was some kind of wonderland.”
Among what he said were the most troubling discoveries by the new board — which Cabinet appointed this month with Bevis Sylvester as chairman — was a $5 million loan to the authority meant for rehabilitating the airport runway after Hurricane Irma.
According to the premier, the money was not spent for its intended purpose but “on salaries and operational expenses,”leading to safety issues and the issuance of another $5.5 million loan.
“When management met with the board in June, attempts were made to pull the wool over their eyes and convince the board that these two sums — $5 million and $5.5 million — were not loans but grants,” he said. “Board resolutions concerning the $5 million from 2017 cannot be found to date.”
Former BVIAA Board Chairman Glenn Harrigan declined to comment this week.
The premier also called out the previous government for spending millions to lay the groundwork for the proposed runway expansion, which never got off the ground.
“After spending millions the project fell through: money wasted,” the premier said, adding that his office was waiting to receive the “full report and all documents” from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour about the money spent on the expansion project from 2012 to 2018.
He added that the ministry has not yet replied. A lack of audited financial statements since 2014 is confounding the problem, as are numerous issues related to the continuing recovery from Irma, according to the premier. The ongoing issues include the bankruptcy of the airports’ insurance company — which led to skyrocketing insurance premiums and a payout that he claimed was not used for its intended purpose — and a damaged administration building whose repair costs have ballooned to $1 million due to design flaws in the original structure, he said.
While awaiting the building’s completion, the premier added,
employees remain in “a haphazard arrangement today, even after
hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on repair of the administration building by the previous board, management and
ministry with responsibility for the airport at that time.”
The premier explained that the new board met with then-outgoing Managing Director Denniston Fraser in June in an
interaction that Mr. Fahie described as “warm and pleasant,” and that Mr. Fraser himself had “flagged some issues as urgent”
Mr. Fahie said that Mr. Fraser, who has since retired and could
not be reached for comment, proposed cost-cutting measures, including transferring firefighters to central government, outsourcing the custodian and management units, and contracting with a central provider for air navigation services. Combined, the premier said, these measures would save the government over $1 million.
“The new board has promised to consider these options and also seek alternative measures that will do no harm to our loyal employees and customers,” Mr. Fahie explained.
The authority is in the process of rebuilding five airport hangars
using reclaimed parcels of land. Four new potential clients have
expressed interest in hangar facilities, according to the premier, and the authority “is reexamining this option for managing the hangar situation so that no one loses.”
Also contributing to the $8.3 million cost is equipment that needs to be purchased, including fire tenders, a new tower console, a conveyor belt x-ray machine, and a control tower elevator, which the premier said is important in particular due to a recent unnerving incident.
“The new BVI Airports Authority chairman and two other
board members attempted to visit the control tower, and the elevator broke down with them inside,” he said. “They were trapped for 45 minutes and they have not been able to conduct their visit to the tower.”
He went on to call for a redefinition of the territory’s airspace “to include all the sovereign islands,” a step he said is necessary because aircraft are currently landing on Anegada with no communication with the control tower.
“What is happening at present is that persons are flying into Anegada without the knowledge of the authority, customs or immigration, and then those persons are using ferries as domestic travels to move from one island to the next,” he said.
This practice, he explained, leads to security risks and the territory losing out on fees. Furthermore, the authority needs new training modules for airport security officers, given that 35 of them failed their last assessment, according to the premier.
“We continue to slip further and further down the rabbit hole
at the BVI Airport Authority,” he said, adding that since taking office, the new board members have met five times with stakeholders to get input for how they can turn around the situation.
“The board is looking at reorganising and restructuring the authority and its operation and trimming off some of the excess.”
Given that the BVIAA had no formal procurement policy, he added, the board is moving to implement one. Additionally, he said, the board has approved a resolution to have a forensic audit
conducted at the airport to commence in two weeks, which
“should tell all citizens where their money has gone and the event that any questionable acts is found, who is responsible and how they should be dealt with.”