The House of Assembly passed a $427,657,383 budget on Friday after two days of debate.
The Appropriation Act 2019 “is now in its final stage before it can be fully utilised” and has been submitted to Governor Gus Jaspert for approval, according to a Monday press release.
Premier Andrew Fahie and other members of his government emphasised that the act is a “transitional budget” that was compiled largely by the previous administration.
Mr. Fahie added, however, that his administration was able to “massage the budget” in some areas, including by increasing funding to individual districts.
“It’s a disrespectful thing to get a person representing a district and have them paralysed,” he said. “And I’m assuring every member of every district that in our next budget you will have more money in that budget … to get what you need done in your district.”
He also announced that his administration will roll out initiatives including a marine programme in which
the government will pay for participants to obtain a captain licence.
“We have to build up our people because the sea and tourism are what’s going to sustain us when all else fails us,” he said.
Mr. Fahie and other HOA members spent much of the budget debate criticising the past administration for delivering what they said were inadequate services compared to the size of past budgets.
As an example, Mr. Fahie pointed to the $61 million budget surplus from last year, and questioned why the Elmore Stoutt High School is still not rebuilt.
Opposition member Julian Fraser (R-D3) spoke similarly.
“Never can one imagine with a budget this size the social ills that we have faced,” said Mr. Fahie added that the previous government spent $5 million in unbudgeted expenses on paving roads shortly before the Feb. 25 election.
“Yes, we had the money, but did we have the priorities correct?” he asked.
He went on to allege that the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College and the National Health Insurance programme are in debt because they have not received payments from the government.
NHI is $2 million in debt, he said, adding that officials claimed during the recent Standing Finance Committee deliberations that the government owes the programme money.
“They were to be given $11.5 million when it started, and they were never given the money, so they started on a
deficit,” he said.
Mr. Fraser also took issue with the government’s “reserves” of $58 million, which he said fall short of the ratio needed to comply with the VI’s Protocols for Effective Financial Management.
The protocols, signed in 2012, stipulate that government should have liquid assets that amount to at least 25 percent of recurrent expenditure.
The budget would need at least $82 million in liquid assets to fall within that ratio, Mr. Fraser pointed out, and added that the government has never reached that 25 percent mark since the protocols were agreed in 2012.
Deputy Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley expressed similar concerns.
“The recurrent expenditure year after year after year has been climbing up, up, up, up, up,” he said.
He added most of the money was spent on salaries for government workers and called for boosting employment in the private sector.
“I have come to the conclusion that we have to develop other areas that can help to employ our people,” he said. “We cannot allow the recurrent expenditure to continue to increase and increase and increase. Then we have no money to do anything else.”
‘The election is over’
Opposition leader Marlon Penn countered some of the attacks against the previous government, which was led by his National Democratic Party, by emphasising the importance of moving forward and transitioning.
“You’re the government now,” he said. “The election is over. … Time to move forward. Time for us to band together and rebuild this country.”
Mr. Penn pointed out that the recurrent expenditures budgeted for goods and services amount to $81.8 million, and he called on the government to spend it responsibly.
“We have to ensure that the people of this territory receives value for money from spending some 80-odd million dollars,” he said. “You can’t just accept anything any vendor or any supplier gives you as a government.”
Mr. Fahie, however, defended one of his new government’s most controversial recent spending decisions: a $98,000 no-bid consultancy contract with former BVI Ports Authority managing director Claude Skelton-Cline’s company Grace Consultants.
The project has come under fire in part because of Mr. Skelton-Cline’s involvement with controversial public projects in the past.
“If he doesn’t produce, he’ll be fired. If he produces, well, then we’ll see,” Mr. Fahie said. “When you sign a man with a contract, if the deliverables don’t come, he’s in trouble.”
He went on to promise that the 2020 budget would pass by Dec. 15, 2019.
Transportation, Works and Utilities Minister Kye Rymer proposed several initiatives to reduce road congestion, including a ban on importing vehicles over eight or 10 years old and turning Russell Hill into a one-way road at certain times of day.
He also suggested imposing a disposal fee on vehicles entering the territory to offset the cost of removing derelict vehicles.
Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone emphasised the importance of opening up ports in West End and Jost Van Dyke to increase revenue, and said it was “counterproductive” not to focus on the income-generating aspects of the economy.
Junior Minister of Tourism Shereen Flax-Charles spoke about initiatives under her portfolio.
“For the first time in many years we are seeing an increase in the tourism budget, and that is something that I have fought for and many of us have fought for for years,” she said.
Ms. Flax-Charles explained that the money will be spent on an increase in lookout sites and major marketing campaigns in the United Kingdom and Europe.
Mr. Wheatley, the minister of education, culture, youth affairs and fisheries, expressed disappointment that not enough money was budgeted for organisations like the Youth Empowerment Project, but said he would find money in the existing budget to help expand them.
“They have not been given the attention that they really deserve and it’s really programmes like YEP who have been holding the strain, and MALE and Boy Scouts and [Girl Scouts] — all of these organisations,” he said.
Meanwhile, Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley lamented that not enough money was allocated to preparing land for new owners as land titles are distributed to residents of Virgin Gorda and Anegada.
“One of the things I campaigned on heavily, particularly in my district, was lands, but going through the budget, I didn’t see where much money at all was allocated for lands,” he said.