Unanticipated expenses including security, arbitration, infrastructure, and public servant increments required legislators to approve supplementary spending for 2021 and 2022, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said on May 26 in the House of Assembly.
“This schedule of additional provisions represents monies which were expended last year,” Dr. Wheatley said while moving the motion for the 2021 spending. “It is customary that certainly towards the end of the year, you will have monies moving from head to head to fill gaps which need to be filled.”
The HOA subsequently passed the motion, which provided for $5,418,000 in supplementary spending for 2021. The same day, members began debate on the motion for $32,836,000 in spending in the current budget. They continued the debate on May 26 in closed-door committee, and they are scheduled to resume June 7.
Dr. Wheatley listed several of the big-ticket items accounted for in the 2021 supplementary appropriations, including the detention of migrants; arbitration in a lawsuit with Global Water Associates Ltd. stemming from the government’s alleged breach of two contracts it signed with the company on Sept. 19, 2006; construction at the Ralph T. O’Neal Administration Complex; work on the Cane Garden Bay sewerage system; bush cutting and drain cleaning; increments paid to public officers; and educator training at the Virgin Islands Teacher Training Institute at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College. The premier said all of these expenses were necessary.
“But moving forward, we have to have a conversation with our ministries and departments and the people of the Virgin Islands about how we provide the needed funding in vital and critical areas,” he said. “Presently, the revenues that we collect are not enough to fund all the priorities of government.”
Dr. Wheatley said the territory also needs to do more to explore other revenue sources.
“We must become more aggressive about raising revenue. That means the diversification of the economy; that means the strengthening of the tourism sector; that means seeking new industries,” he said. “Of course, we have been speaking about them for some years now, and it’s time to deliver on those promises.”
He also called for a re-evaluation of the territory’s pension system.
“We have to look at pension reform, because certainly that is something that will end up bankrupting the government and the country if we do not address it,” he said. “We are at a critical stage now with the pressure that is on the financial services sector as well as the growing population and the need to invest more in our infrastructure. … We have to take action now if we are going to continue to keep the lights on, so to speak, and be able to continue to meet our obligations.”
Dr. Wheatley said it is also important to optimise revenue-collection systems and find ways to save money in government operations, like making the switch to electronic systems and a more fuel-efficient fleet of vehicles.
‘Ensure that we are fiscally responsible’
Regarding the 2022 budget, Dr. Wheatley said the government has to be “cognisant of a new approach that we have to take to ensure that we are fiscally responsible, and our government finances remain viable.”
He noted that some of the expenses included in these supplementary appropriations would help save money in the long term.
Deputy Premier Kye Rymer seconded the motion and noted the importance of paying overdue increments, some of which dated back to 2017.
Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Mitch Turnbull, former member of the opposition, said he appreciated the premier’s vision and was optimistic he would offer a timeline for pursuing reform.