House of Assembly lawmakers unanimously passed the 2018 Appropriation Act on Friday, budgeting for a deficit for the first time in recent memory.
The budget passed with amendments, and though the final document has not yet been published, the Gazetted act indicates lawmakers appropriated about $356.5 million for recurrent expenditure and nearly $73.3 million for capital expenditure and acquisitions.
Education and Culture Minister Myron Walwyn said during the budget debate that expected revenue totals were $311 million.
HOA members cut the timing close: The $101 million provisional general warrant they passed as a stopgap measure in December was set to expire at the end of April, two days after they voted for the 2018 act.
The looming deadline made for an abbreviated budget debate with shorter than-usual contributions from lawmakers, though as in past years they often strayed far from the Appropriation Act in their remarks.
Given recent events, certain elements of that act may need to be revisited: Mr. Walwyn (R-at large) said during the debate that the territory was expecting about $190 million in financial services revenue, though that figure was projected before the United Kingdom decided on Monday to require the Virgin Islands to implement a public register of beneficial ownership. It remains unclear how much that decision will impact government coffers in
the short term.
In expectation of that decision, Mr. Walwyn said last Friday that government should go back and look at the budget a second time.
“You cannot pass it as if nothing as happened,” the minister said, arguing that
the BVI Tourist Board needs more than the $10.5 million it was budgeted.
The tourism industry, he explained, would need to serve as the backbone of the economy due to the stress on financial services.
“We have to put more money in the tourism sector because that is going to be the next pillar,” he said. “Because there might be other pillars that we can get, but they won’t happen now. Let us not fool ourselves. We’re not going to get a new industry that will just pop up in the next two or three years. It will not happen.”
Opposition Member Julian Fraser (R-D3) argued that the size of the spending budget demonstrated government’s lack of fiscal restraint and discipline.
Premier Dr. Orlando Smith (R-at large), however, argued that spending is important to continuing to provide government services, stimulating the economy, and supporting the public service.
“And so while it is true that as we face more difficult times you want to look at reducing the budget, I cannot accept at this point that that would’ve been the route to do, and we would’ve been much further behind than we are right now,” Dr. Smith said.
The premier said budgeting spending in line with revenue in 2018 would have been an “impossibility.”
Mr. Fraser also argued that government needs to track its appropriations better.
“In our department of statistics, we need a dedicated fewwho track the dollars that come into this country: how they’re spent, what they do when they come in, and what happens to them before they leave,” Mr. Fraser said.
During the debate, members also discussed projects that have been delayed for months or years.
Deputy Premier Dr. Kedrick Pickering (R-D7) and Marlon Penn (R-D8), the junior minister for trade and investment promotion, both called on their own
government to fix the longtime sewage woes in their communities on the eastern side of Tortola.
“I went to Greenland this week,” Mr. Penn said. “And tears literally came to my eyes to see what those people of Greenland still have to deal with today. … I sat there and watched a young child dodging cars to try and get to school and avoid being splashed by sewage.
“I saw a lady going to work with fear in her eyes, wading her way through sewage bubbling over, running down the streets in Greenland.”
Plans for a major public sewerage system in the territory date back at least to 1974, when Her Majesty’s Stationer’s Office published a booklet on the government’s agenda for the year that included plans for a national
sewage treatment plant.
Since then, delays and other problems have plagued such plans, with goals for a national sewerage programme repeatedly falling short. In 2002, a master plan was drafted to implement the programme, starting by addressing the sewage issues in Road Town and East End/Long Look.
Since then, progress has been slow in the midst of funding issues, administration changes anda lack of follow-through.
Nevertheless, progress was made in Road Town, where the Burt Point treatment plant was completed and started processing sewage in October 2015.
The treatment plant in Paraquita Bay was also completed, but it is not expected to come online until pipes are laid to connect it to EE/LL.
Government has diverted funds multiple times from the EE/LL sewerage project to large capital works, including Peebles Hospital and the Tortola
Both Dr. Pickering and Mr. Penn called on the project to be finished this year.
West End port
Opposition Leader Andrew Fahie (R-D1) also called for the immediate reopening of the West End ports, which have been largely shuttered since Hurricane Irma.
“There’s no excuse for the ports in West End not being open. None,” Mr. Fahie said. “If we wanted to do it from a financial standpoint, even for the budget, and we looked to see the revenue that that port in West End brings in, it should’ve been one of the first places we went and opened.”