During the budget debate on Friday HOA members spoke about the importance of economy diversification for the territory. (Photo: YOUTUBE)

On Friday members of the House of Assembly passed a $414 million budget following a lengthy debate over the Appropriations Act 2020.

Throughout the debate, nearly every member stressed the importance of bringing in new revenue streams as the territory passes legislation regulating the financial services industry to avoid international blacklists.

Premier Andrew Fahie said revenue from the financial services sector this year plummeted by 27 percent, or about $30 million, a drop that he said was predicted as far back as two years ago.

Many members spoke about different ways to diversify the economy, including tourism, athletics, shipping and agriculture.

Out of the $414 million budget, Mr. Fahie said $26.9 million would be added to reserves to avoid violating last year’s Protocols for Effective Financial Management.

The figures also include $362,888,440 in recurrent revenue.

Diversification

In his contribution to the debate, Mr. Fahie, who is also the finance minister, painted a picture of a government that plans to move ahead with bold action at a time when the territory faces formidable fiscal challenges.

“Let us put this budget in the right perspective: It is the end of the relaxed-revenue-syndrome era,” he said, adding, “And we’re now in the era of ‘let’s roll up our sleeves and chart our new course, or our course will be charted for us.’”

Outside influences, he suggested, are pressuring his government.

“It’s not a simple time in the territory,” he said. “We have challenges coming from left, right and centre. I just have not made them public yet.”

He also praised his government’s progress so far.

“Ten months in office and two budgets in 10 months is not a small feat by any stretch of the imagination,” he said, adding, “Everything that was not done in this country in the last 16 years, I’ve been asked to do it right away.”

The premier also appeared to refer to the recovery loan guarantee offered by the United Kingdom, which he has expressed reluctance to accept.

“I’m not taking any loan for this territory to get us in trouble, so that we can look good but we can’t pay for the loan,” he said, adding, “I’m not going to do it for the people of the Virgin Islands.”

The debate

Opposition members also spoke at length during the debate, airing ideas, grievances and requests for their constituents.

Opposition member Julian Fraser (R-D3) suggested the government wasn’t doing enough to cultivate the shipping registry, claiming that 70 percent of the 3,800 vessels registered in the VI are from Florida, and adding that new registrations have decreased from some 200 per year to around 150 or 130 per year.

In comparison, he said, Cayman Islands registers about 5,000 vessels per year.

Opposition member Mitch Turnbull (R-D2) similarly said it was important not to “put all our eggs in one basket” and instead focus on cultivating athletes and natural resources.

Mr. Fraser also suggested that the BVI Tourist Board use the faces of VI athletes as “poster athletes for the Virgin Islands.”

Opposition Leader Marlon Penn (R-D8) argued that with two of the territory’s major banks — CIBC First Caribbean and Scotiabank — being sold to new owners, it is necessary to form partnerships with those institutions so that residents can access financing to support the growth of economic activity in the territory, and so that bank employees retain their pension benefits.

Meanwhile, Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture Minister Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said $5 million was in the budget to cultivate a medical marijuana industry to reallocate land and process the crops.

Total

Members of the opposition said that while they supported the budget overall, they also had several criticisms.

Mr. Turnbull commended the size of the budget of $414,008,611, which he called a “tremendous accomplishment.”

However, he also expressed concerns that the recurrent expenditure is $327,289,249, leaving only $86.7 million in capital spending, which he said was not enough to contribute to the growth of the territory.

“Students graduating from high school and college are wanting to contribute to the development of this territory. We’re looking at just about $86 million that will be able to help facilitate their growth and development and contribution to the rebuilding of this territory to shape it for the next 50 or 60 years,” Mr. Turnbull said. “I am of the opinion that we cannot continue in this fashion.”

Opposition member Alvera Maduro-Caines (R-D6) also expressed concerns about escalating recurrent expenditures, which she said “frightened” her.

“We really need to put our heads together to figure out how we can cut this, how we can cut this down,” she said. “Some persons might get hurt, some persons may not be able to travel as much but we have to do something. This is getting out of control.”

Mr. Fraser expressed similar sentiments.

“I continue to be baffled by the size of this budget,” he said, pointing out that the recurrent expenditures equal about 90 percent of recurrent revenue.

He went on to claim that despite the swelling budget, services are inferior to the days when the budget was $119 million.

“Someone needs to be able to sit down and rationalise where this money is going, and is it necessary,” he said. “Today we don’t have money for infrastructure, infrastructure development or capital development.”

He also said that the government was overspending, with $78 million spent on goods and services, thus driving up prices for regular consumers.

He also criticised that only $300,000 was allocated for improving the efficiency of government services. If more was spent, he said, it would reduce recurrent expenditures over time.

Several members of the government acknowledged the concerns over rising recurrent expenditures, but said they had done their best under the constraints.

Illegal building

During the budget debate, many members complained about illegal building in the territory, and asked for strengthened legislation to deter such offenders.

Mr. Turnbull complained about residents “constructing and occupying spaces, including government land, that they’re not permitted to” and encouraged the premier to pass legislation enabling the Town and Country Department to better enforce the territory’s laws.

He went on to say that he had heard several complaints about people building illegally in the Second District, creating problems with sewage, litter and poor natural resource management.

He also called on developers to cease construction that pollutes waters and fills in wetlands, and suggested an enforcement body that fines violators.

“The root cause that we have as it relates to the beaches of the Second District and the beaches of the territory is that all people continue to break the law, continue to find ways and means to expand chasing the dollar to get business,” Mr. Turnbull said. “But in the very same breath, destroying the very thing that gave them the opportunity to make this dollar.”

Mr. Fraser similarly complained about dredging in the Sea Cows Bay harbour, saying that the silt at the mouth of the ghut there has created an “island that does not belong there.”

“I think the ministry should focus on removing that island from there. Because if you want to see the degradation of this territory, that’s a start. We need to stop it. … It’s going to get bigger and bigger and the harbour’s going to get smaller and smaller.”

Mr. Penn also mentioned an issue with East End/Long Look waterfront development that has seen disputes over property ownership, and asked the Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent (R-D9) Wheatley to help solve the matter.

Community centres

Several opposition members requested increased funding for their district’s community centres. Mr. Turnbull spoke of the importance of the centres as a place of community and recreation for the seniors in the Second District who felt “neglected,” referencing concerns expressed by Mr. Fraser in a previous HOA sitting.

“They’re lonely, they’re missing that camaraderie, so I am challenging and hoping that the minister of health would work aggressively to ensure that the community centres are reinstated,” he said.

Ms. Maduro-Caines also repeated her requests from the last HOA to repair the Belle Vue Community Centre, and Mr. Penn complained of a non-functioning community centre in his district.

Prison

Multiple members called for increased funding and regulation for Her Majesty’s Prison, with Mr. Turnbull noting reports about guards mistreating inmates.

Ms. Maduro-Caines said that not enough money was allocated for the facility, which she said lacks adequate exercise facilities for inmates, leading some to develop health issues.

Mr. Fraser also raised complaints about the Prison Act, which he said was passed in the House but was never assented to by the governor.

“We passed it in this House. But people should know that a bill doesn’t become law until the governor assents to it,” he said. “And they’re saying that [the governor is sending it] back to this House. But they can’t tell me why. Why is it coming back?”

Mr. Fraser read aloud an explanation stating that the attorney general had pointed out areas of the act that needed to be amended before it could be assented to.

“My only question was, is this the same attorney general that advised the government to bring the act to the House of Assembly, get it passed, and when it got to the governor he needed to get it amended so it could be assented to?” he said. “I’m confused. And if you’re not confused, something is wrong with you.”

Roads, water, sewerage

Many members also called for increased funding for roadsworks for their districts, with Mr. Turnbull requesting that the road that runs from Rudy’s Marketplace to the end of Foxy’s in Jost Van Dyke to be completed in 2020, pointing out that Transportations, Works and Utilities Minister Kye Rymer had promised that it would be addressed by next year.

Ms. Maduro-Caines expressed concerns that residents of her district were still walking to their homes up the hill across from Alexandria Maduro Primary School, including one man who is ill, because the roads are not good enough to drive on.

She said she requested $250,000, which she saw listed in the budget as “roadworks,” but she wanted the sum to be specifically allocated for her district.

Mr. Penn also said more funding was needed for roads, many of which he said are in a “deplorable” state.

Multiple members also complained about inadequate water and sewerage services. Opposition member Mark Vanterpool (R-D4) suggested putting water and sewerage authorities under a statutory organisational structure to oversee revenue, expenditure and engineering, and supplying the territory with water in a more equitable way. He went on to propose that the agency join with the BVI Electricity Corporation to address issues of insufficient water supply across the territory.

Mr. Vanterpool also claimed that government was spending around $24 million or more on water and sewerage, while collecting only $4 million every year — largely because of faulty water meters.

Meanwhile, Mr. Turnbull called on government to properly staff and fund the Public Works Department and Water and Sewerage Department in Jost Van Dyke, which he said were understaffed and had “inadequate buildings” infested with mould and without a roof.

He added, though, that the Cane Garden Bay Sewerage Project is out to tender and should be finalised by the end of the year.

In response, Mr. Rymer said he was at work to address road, water and bush cutting issues and said that his administration had made it a priority to purchase water meters.

HOA members

Messrs. Turnbull and Fraser also called for more funding to suupport HOA members, who they said did not have adequate staffing and resources to carry out their jobs.

Mr. Fraser claimed that the funding allocated to the HOA was insufficient at about $5.6 million, and suggested that the HOA move to become a statutory body, which would be managed by a board of elected members.

“We need to change the way we do business,” he said. “Our perception in the eyes of the public is not good.”

Mr. Turnbull also called on the Department of Labour and Workforce Development to investigate reports of mistreatment in the government service and private sector.

Mr. Fraser also spoke on this topic, stating that some people who have been working for government for over 20 years are still not “permanent and pensionable.”

He suggested that legislation be amended to address this issue, and again brought up his recommendation for a Public Bills Committee.

Social services

Mr. Vanterpool called for more budgeting to the Social Development Department and the Family Support Network to assist needy residents in a regulated way, rather than through ad-hoc handouts from representatives, who he said received around $4 million last year for allocations.

Mr. Penn also called to reallocate funds for social services like the Housing Recovery Assistance Programme, pointing out that only $30,000 was allocated to address issues of social housing.

Tourism

Junior Minister for Tourism Sharie De Castro announced that $3.5 million in the budget was allocated to the BVI Tourist Board for product development, including the creation of a new post of director of projects to implement a signage project.

Other planned work, she said, includes enhancements to national parks; beach huts and cabanas on seven beaches throughout the VI; a welcome centre at Trellis Bay; enhancements to Road Town; the reopening of the 1780 Lower Estate Sugar Works Museum; the first phase of the BVI Culture Village and the Maritime Museum on St. Thomas Bay in Virgin Gorda; and bathroom facilities for several beaches.

Other projects include a platform where ships in port can feature performances from local artists and bands between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Other Concerns

Members also mentioned other concerns and updates specific to their districts.

Mr. Turnbull said a JVD ports facility is in progress, and that the JVD customs building will be renamed in honour of Albert Chinnery in a ceremony tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Ms. Maduro-Caines said that work on the fisherman’s wharf in her district is progressing and is on track to be dedicated by March 2020 and will have a play area with swings and slides for children.

Mr. Penn said that the development of Greenland stadium is progressing, and that the budget included $350,000 for track infrastructure. He also called for more funding to improve parks and playground equipment in the Eighth District that are damaged and unsafe since the hurricanes, as well as for a state-of-the-art library, maintenance for the newly built restroom facilities on Long Bay, and repairs to the Trellis Bay Visitors Centre.

Details

Dr. Wheatley (R-D7) also detailed the breakdown of various other spending allocations, including $9.5 million to the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College; $2.8 million to continue repairs to the Bregado Flax Educational Centre; $400,000 for other school rehabilitation works; $150,000 to repair sporting facilities; $375,000 to repair the roof and air conditioning at the Multi-purpose Sports Complex; $74,000 to repair the L. Adorothy Turnbull building; $400,000 to build a fishing complex; and $295,000 for a community centre in the Seventh District.

He said funds from the Recovery and Development Agency were also providing $1 million for the Elmore Stoutt High School, $500,000 towards museums and historical sites, $530,000 toward a national library, $500,000 towards the Jost Van Dyke Primary School, and $500,000 for fishing docks.

Other funds allocated to the Health and Social Development Ministry included $40,000 for the East End/Long Look Clinic, he said.

Additionally, $500,000 will be allocated for a waste landfill site, and an additional $500,000 will come from the RDA budget for the incinerator, with $450,000 towards temporary housing.

In terms of loan funding, $3 million is allocated to the TWU Ministry for the East End/Long Look sewerage project and $2 million for road infrastructure.

For the NRL Ministry, $200,000 is allocated to the Brandywine Bay project, and $250,000 to the East End/Long Look harbour development, he said.


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