STATEMENT BY PREMIER AND MINISTER OF FINANCE
HONOURABLE ANDREW A. FAHIE
One-on-One Press Conference
Update on Current Matters
25 March, 2022
Good day and God's Blessings to all the people of the Virgin Islands, and to all our listening audience around the world.
I welcome everyone to another One-on-One bi-weekly press conference, where your Government continues to provide regular updates on the work that we are doing to further strengthen the resilience of our islands and to improve the quality of life for all our citizens, as well as to facilitate questions from the media.
I wish to begin by reiterating that your Government condemns violence in all forms, regardless of who the perpetrator may be. For generations our people have worked hard to create and maintain a peaceful and safe community. Our people are a people of BVILOVE who look out for each other, who respect each other, and who respect our community - and for sure who respect God.
We are resolved to keep it this way. Unlawful conduct, especially as these relate to serious crime – and in particular gun crimes – has no place in our peaceful Virgin Islands.
While constitutional responsibility for security and public safety rests with the Governor, your Government is fully committed to our role in supporting the Governor and the Commissioner of Police in their function of mitigating criminal activity.
As I said recently, your Government continues to work with Customs, Immigration, the Police, the Attorney General’s Office, the Director of Public Prosecution’s Office and the other elements of the justice system, to assist in them having the needed resources to protect the Virgin Islands.
But the authorities alone cannot solve this problem. All of us as Virgin Islanders, Belongers and residents have a part to play. If you see something, say something. You can do it anonymously.
Within our homes and social circles, we also have to try and encourage the persons around us to stay on the right path.
As it relates to getting illegal firearms off our streets, we will be moving to implement a gun amnesty in the near future. This was an initiative that Honourable Neville Smith championed. As a member of the National Security Council, I am pleased to have been the conduit to bring it forward and now have the initiative being taken up.
In due course, His Excellency Governor John J. Rankin, CMG, and Commissioner of Police Mr. Mark Collins will provide the details of this amnesty.
But in the meantime, let us continue to work together to deal with this problem that is creeping into our beautiful and peaceful Virgin Islands.
Visit by Rt Hon Amanda Milling
Last week I was very pleased to officially receive the UK Minister for the Overseas Territories, The Right Honourable Amanda Milling, who graciously visited the Virgin Islands at my invitation, which I extended to her last year when I attended the United Kingdom- Overseas Territries Joint Ministerial Council in London and followed up in writing this year.
During her visit we held very positive bilateral talks in which we discussed a number of policy issues. It was also my pleasure to host a Ministerial dinner for Minister Milling to return the generosity and exceptional hospitality that the Minister and her team showed to me when I visited London.
At our bilateral talks we discussed the joint response by the United Kingdom and Overseas Territories to the situation taking place in Ukraine, which is causing hurt, suffering and loss of lives, and also negatively impacting the world economy.
We firmly believe that all people have the right to live in peace within their own internationally recognised borders. This is also the position of the United Nations General Assembly and CARICOM.
It is my hope that the conflict will end sooner rather than later. War and violence is never the answer.
Minister Milling and I also discussed the economic impact of the conflict in Ukraine on the Virgin Islands, which has caused fuel prices to rise at the pump, increased electricity bills and impacted the cost of goods and services.
I shared with the Minister the potential fiscal and other policy options to respond to these economic pressures, which our technical officials are further assessing.
We also discussed the impact of COVID-19 and my Administration’s prudent budgetary management throughout the pandemic, which Minister Milling highly commended.
Additionally, we touched on sustainable development and diversification of the economy. Among other things, we agreed to build upon the good progress being made in advancing medicinal cannabis in the Virgin Islands.
Finally, on the issue of Good Governance, I was very pleased that Minister Milling welcomed the suite of legislation your elected Government passed in 2021, which we are in the process of being implemented now. His Excellency the Governor and I have been working closely on this.
As it concerns the Commission of Inquiry, the Minister and I did not have any substantive discussion about it, except to note that the report would be completed in April.
In summary, Minister Milling and I and our respective teams had very good bilateral talks and engagement.
Her visit builds on the genuine efforts being made on both sides to restore the modern partnership between the Virgin Islands and United Kingdom, and I am confident that we can continue to make good progress in this regard.
Public Procurement Act
The process for implementing the recently passed Public Procurement Act, 2021 has begun.
The Ministry of Finance is conducting a series of training on the Act to ensure that all stakeholders are prepared for its coming into force, which is expected in the second quarter of this year.
The goal of the Ministry of Finance is to train those involved in all aspects of Government procurement activities in the application of the Act.
The training is being held from 21 to 31 March, 2022, and is being facilitated by Mr. Charles Kendall with funding from the Caribbean Development Bank.
Training sessions have been planned specifically for Cabinet Members, House of Assembly Members, Public Officers, and the Supplier Community.
I reiterate, this legislation is timely as it promotes your Government’s commitment to Good Governance and transparency, and demonstrates our ability to further police ourselves.
This legislation is among a series of Good Governance legislations that have been passed during your current Government’s Administration, including the Whistleblower Act, Contractor General Act, Ministerial Code and the Integrity in Public Life Act, just to name a few.
I encourage the Supplier Community to become familiar with the Public Procurement Act so that they will have a better chance of being successful in winning bids and contributing positively to the economy of the Virgin Islands.
Other Good Governance Legislation
This is an opportune time to also mention that we are in the process of constituting and establishing the Integrity Commission under the Integrity in Public Life Act.
According to the Act, the Commission is to be comprised of a Chairperson who shall be a retired judge or an attorney-at-law of at least 15 years standing agreed between the Governor and the Premier; one member each nominated by the Governor, the Premier, the Leader of the Opposition and the Christian Council.
Once all the respective nominations come in, the Commission will be appointed, which should be within the next three weeks. We hope to have the Commission functional within about one month.
We also expect to have the Contractor General post filled within one month. This position was advertised and the selection, again, is being done in an independent manner with full adherence to Good Governance. Numerous persons have applied, and we thank them for offering their services.
We hope to have the selection and all the other processes completed within one month.
With respect to the other Good Governance legislation that your Government has assigned high priority - the Human Rights Commission legislation, the Amendments to the Registrar of Interests Act and the Freedom of Information Act – discussions are underway between the Premier, the Attorney General and the Governor, as we continue to work together to expedite the preparation of these legislation so that they can move through the respective processes and become reality.
A lot of work is happening to further strengthen Good Governance, and to further strengthen our economy.
Virgin Islands Trade Commission
Your Government is moving forward with the implementation of the Virgin Islands Trade Commission due to the passing of the Virgin Islands Trade Commission Act. The next step is the appointment of the Board of Commissioners.
The selection of the persons to serve on the Trade Commission was done through an independent process. There was no involvement in the selection process by any elected official. There was no hand-picking by any elected official.
Persons would recall that advertisements were published inviting persons interested in serving to apply. The shortlisting was done by a committee in accordance with the criteria stipulated in the Act, and no elected official was involved in this process. Additionally, the Governor had his input at the appropriate stage in Cabinet, for which we thank him.
So, these appointments are being made with full transparency, adherence to Good Governance and adherence to the Act.
The names of the appointees, as approved by Cabinet after the independent process, are: Melissa Farara, Hakim Creque, Wendell Gaskin, Lavina Liburd, the Trade Commissioner as Ex-officio, Deputy Chairman Sasha Hodge and Michael Fay – Chairman.
We congratulate those who have been successful in being selected. We also thank the other persons who applied but were not successful, and we encourage them to apply for other positions when applications are invited in areas where they are qualified.
Over the past several weeks, your Government has been writing to airlines, encouraging and inviting them to conduct direct flights between the Virgin Islands and the US mainland utilising the current runway length at the Terrance B Lettsome International Airport, while we are working on the airport expansion.
The feedback has been positive from all the airlines contacted. One particular airline is presently expanding its fleet and is optimistic about starting this service by the end of the third quarter of this year – based on the discussions taking place. The others are looking at their fleet configuration.
Another airline, which heard about what we are trying to do, reached out to us because they have recently made some additions to their fleet, and they now have an aircraft that is capable of conducting flights between Beef Island and Miami, possibly three days per week.
Technical discussions are underway with this airline to work out the logistics involved and we are optimistic that things will work out for this airline to introduce the direct flights very soon.
As progress is made, we will keep everyone updated.
In the meantime, the Recovery and Development Agency (RDA) and the other relevant stakeholders are continuing the technical work with respect to the expansions of both airports at Beef Island and Virgin Gorda. Updates will also be provided as these technical works progress, so that persons can be fully informed of these projects.
ESHS Campus Development Project
Persons would also be pleased to know that the Elmore Stoutt High School Campus Redevelopment Project continues to move forward.
The deadline for the receipt of bids closed on Tuesday, 22 March, 2022.
All the bids received have been forwarded to the RDA for the evaluation process. The RDA is doing its assessments independent of any political influence, with the highest level of integrity, accountability, transparency and Good Governance.
So, we are awaiting the analysis and selection for the contracts by the RDA. But what I can tell the public is that the RDA is working very expeditiously to complete this process so that we can have contracts signed by 31 March, 2022, at the ESHS grounds at 3pm.
The contract documents are being drafted using standard templates, so that once the contractors are selected it will be just to insert the name and relevant information, and the documents will be ready for signatures.
While we await the RDA’s determinations on the bids, your Government wishes to thank all contractors who bid for the project and we wish them good luck in the evaluation process.
I also must thank my Government for their support in this endeavor, especially Dr. the Honourable Natalio Wheatley, Deputy Premier and Minister of Education and his entire team at the Ministry of Education.
Again, I emphasise this is an independent and transparent process being conducted by the RDA, and no elected official is involved – whether directly or indirectly – in this selection process. The RDA is fully in control of this process.
Since 2017, the people of the Virgin Islands – both in the private and public sectors – have experienced extreme financial hardship, which also extended into certain social ills.
Since taking office in 2019, your Government has been faced with the wake of dealing with the impacts of the August floods and Category 5 Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.
We had hoped to be further moving but you know some of these issues caused some significant delays.
And, we had to cope with an imposed Commission of Inquiry (COI) - that has taken a toll on your Government financially and that has affected many of our people emotionally - especially our public officers, in terms of the way that the COI was initiated and due to the strenuous deadlines with requests for information that were at times very unreasonable.
Nonetheless, we continue to stress that we have no disagreement with a transparent and independent Inquiry that will yield a just outcome.
The issue has been the manner in which the Inquiry was done and the timing of it given the hefty and complex challenges that the Government and our public officers and our people – all our Virgin Islands and residents – had to be dealing with in the middle of COVID-19.
We will all agree that there is room for systems to be improved, and your Government has been willing and working on improving those systems since we took office.
Whatever recommendations are made by the COI report to further improve the systems of Government, we will take them under consideration, and move forward in a manner where there will be no retrograde steps as it relates to the democratic advancement, constitutional advancement, and institutional advancement of the people of the Virgin Islands and the aspirations of our people.
Added to that, we also had to cope with the fallout from COVID-19 – the worst pandemic to hit the world in over 100 years.
This caused your Government to have to adjust the priority on several projects and to redirect millions of dollars towards putting measures in place to address the public health threat and the safety of our people, to protect the economy from catastrophic damage, and to provide for the social needs of our people during this very difficult period.
And just as we had started to see a balance in the situation – where the global travel and tourism industry was beginning to open up a bit more, our investments to help the local businesses to hold on and to stay afloat were generating positive results, and where economic activity was beginning to pick up; especially with the return of the cruise ships and other tourism business – then came the conflict in Ukraine.
And we are all aware that this conflict has resulted in impacts that are being felt around the world. The price of almost every commodity – especially imported goods and by extension services as well – in all parts of the world is increasing and this is also contributing to rising inflation. We in the Virgin Islands are no exception to these impacts.
Your Government, recognizing the financial strain that this situation is having on businesses and on consumers – on our single mothers, on our single fathers, on our families, on everyone – has been engaged in a series of meetings to get updated assessments of this situation that is continuing to evolve and to analyse the situation with a view of bringing forward initiatives that will help soften the economic blow on our people, stemming from the developments in Ukraine and other parts of the world.
In this light, I am pleased to announce that your Government will be taking to Cabinet to have approved an economic stimulus initiative that will have all Customs Duties that are above 5 percent to be lowered to 5 percent. This will be effective from 15 April, 2022, for three months in the first instance.
So, all goods and services that that are being imported into the country that presently carry a Customs Duty of more than 5 percent will be lowered to 5 percent from 15 April, 2022, for three months in the first instance.
For goods and services that presently have a duty of 5 percent or less, those charges will remain as they are.
This will apply across the board – both to businesses and to private citizens.
To give an example; if a person is looking to import a motor vehicle costing $30,000 including shipping, where the import duty would have been 20 percent or $6,000; under this initiative the duty will be capped at 5 percent and they would pay the reduced duty of only $1,500 during the period of this stimulus initiative.
Similarly, when it comes to importing food, clothing, construction materials, marine supplies and equipment, vehicle parts, products for senior citizens and all other items, where the regular Customs Duty is over 5 percent, persons and businesses will pay 5 percent and this will lower the overall cost of importing the item.
Persons should also note that Customs Duty is calculated on the purchase price of the item plus the shipping cost – which is called the CIF value. So, the calculation of the savings will not just be on the purchase price which the supplier was paid, but the cost inclusive of freight and whatever other charges make up the CIF value.
In addition, your Government is implementing measures to cushion the impact of rising fuel prices on our people. The import duty on diesel will be reduced by 50 percent – from 22 cents per imperial gallon to 11 cents per imperial gallon. The import duty on gasoline will also be reduced by 50 percent – from 32 cents per imperial gallon to 16 cents per imperial gallon.
This should give our people some relief at the gas pumps and in their pockets.
So the savings to all persons in all sectors will be significant – whether it is in the marine sector, the automotive sector, the construction sector, food imports, the tourism industry, hardware and home goods; all sectors across the board.
This initiative will go a long way in helping the people of the Virgin Islands to better deal with the economic struggles they may be facing at this time, which are caused by these events that are occurring thousands of miles away and which are not the fault of anyone in the Virgin Islands, but yet who are being impacted as people are being impacted throughout the world.
Not only will this initiative help to ease the burdens on businesses and individuals, but it will help to increase the purchasing power of people across all sectors – allowing persons to be able to stretch their dollar a bit further during these challenging times, help them to maintain their standard of living and also helping to keep the economy stimulated, much in the same way your Government was able to do during the earlier and more critical stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To ensure that the savings and benefits of this initiative are passed on to the consumers, your Government will be conducting monitoring exercises where businesses are concerned, through the Trade Department with its consumer protection function and in collaboration with our various other Government agencies.
I want to take this opportunity to remind members of the public that this will be just one initiative that your Government has put in place to ease the financial burdens of our people.
I want to thank my At Large Team of Honourable Carvin Malone, Honourable Shari B. de Castro, Honourable Shereen Flax-Charles and Honourable Nevile Smith, for championing this imitative on behalf of the people of the Virgin Islands as well as my other colleagues and our public officers.
Your Government has implemented the zero import duty on most of the equipment and supplies needed for Going Green and switching to sustainable energy sources such as solar. By Going Green and generating your own electrical power, persons can save on their electricity bill and even earn money by selling their surplus power back to the grid.
We are encouraging persons to get involved in the Green sustainable energy sector – in areas such as but not limited to electric charging stations.
Because with the developments taking place in the world with regard to oil supply and pricing on the global market, the crisis is pointing us in the direction of changes that we knew would come, but we are seeing where everything is saying these changes would become more urgent sooner than everyone had previously anticipated. And this includes transitioning the energy sources.
Your Government has been leading the way and setting the example with sustainable energy options – for example the recent commissioning of the electric shuttle service, which many people are now using to commute around the Capital in Road Town, Tortola. I want to thank the Minister of Works, Hon Kye Rymer, and his entire team at the Ministry of Transportation and Works for spearheading this initiative on behalf of your Government.
We are also utilising sustainable energy in some of our school projects and other Government buildings. So, persons can see this technology at work, and that they do have benefits.
But we need more persons to join the transformation, and this is an opportunity for gaining some economic benefits and to further empower themselves.
Just recently, your Government also secured the approval to extend the waiver of Stamp Duty for Belongers and Virgin Islanders who wish to purchase their first home.
This is an initiative that will help to secure our people and to empower them. Because when you own land, you have equity – personal equity as well as an ownership share in these islands. When you own land, you can use it as collateral to get loans from the bank for construction, starting a business, student loans and much more.
And your Government is continuing to dialogue with the banks to get them to offer more favourable lending terms to our people in these challenging times – especially to help our people to access loans to own their first home and to benefit from the savings due to the Stamp Duty waiver. We are continuing to lobby the banks to consider 100 percent financing for Belongers seeking to purchase property, especially the prospective first time home owners.
Another economic stimulus measure that is aimed at reducing the burden on our people in these challenging times and helping them to become empowered is the amnesty for the interest accrued on outstanding Property Tax, which commenced on 1 March, 2022 and runs until 28 February, 2023.
I urge persons to make every effort to access this incentive and to reap the maximum benefits from this measure.
Under this amnesty, the principal amount of Property Tax is still payable, but persons can save money in having the accrued interest waived.
In order to have the interest waived persons must either pay off their principal or agree to a payment plan with the Commissioner of Inland Revenue to liquidate the principal tax within the amnesty period.
So, I urge persons to go into Inland Revenue without delay and either settle the principal owing on their Property Tax or work out a payment plan, so that you can be in good standing before the amnesty window closes and you can save money by having the interest waived.
Your Government understands the challenges our people face and we are responding in a proactive way to help our people to get through these times and also to become empowered.
Since taking office in 2019 and with the various situations that arose threatening hardship on our people, your Government has brought forward several relief measures and economic stimuli. Persons who, for whatever reason, were unable to access or to benefit from these previous stimuli, will be able to benefit from the reduction in Customs Duties which I have just announced.
The late and great Bob Marley once said that when the rain falls it does not fall on one man’s house top. And the economic impacts from the events taking place are affecting everyone.
With this import duty stimulus measure, every household will benefit because every household is an importer and every household is a consumer. Every person in the Virgin Islands, regardless of social and economic status, regardless of political allegiance and regardless of religious affiliation – every Virgin Islander, Belonger and resident, whether as a business owner or operator or as a private citizen – every person will benefit from this stimulus measure.
I want to take this moment to also appeal to our shop owners to pass the savings on to their customers because this will keep the economy circulating, it will ensure that your customers are able to continue shopping locally, and reduce the amount of money leaving the Virgin Islands. If you over-price your goods, you may be pushing your customers to shop abroad, and we would prefer that they shop locally.
I also want to say that when, just about two weeks ago, I announced that the Task Force was created to look into the prices of goods, services and fuel, there were persons who tried to frame this as if your Government was attacking the business community – which was not so.
The Task Force was able to gather the data and the information for us to be able to sit down and analyse the numbers and the scenarios, and for us to understand the various perspectives to the problem so that we could arrive at fair and effective solutions.
So, a lot of work is taking place, especially in the midst of the numerous challenges around us and impacting us in the Virgin Islands. But these challenges can only make us stronger and better. And together, we will overcome them.
We continue to give God all the glory, and we ask him to continue to bless and protect these Virgin Islands and His people who have made these islands their home.
I thank you.