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Plasterk wants ‘sit down’ on integrity recommendations

PHILIPSBURG--Dutch Minister of Interior Affairs and Kingdom Relations Ronald Plasterk wants a "sit down" with the St. Maarten Government to talk about the execution of recommendations from the Integrity Reports, particularly the one compiled by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Caretaker Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams said Plasterk's letter stated that he would make "no decision" on government's approach to the recommendations until such a meeting takes place. Government had submitted its "plan of approach" to the recommendations of the reports to the Dutch Government in October.

Plasterk's letter, addressed to Justice Minister Dennis Richardson, was received two weeks ago. Wescot-Williams said at the Council of Ministers press briefing on Wednesday she "only learnt" that morning of the letter.

The press briefing held in A.C. Wathey Legislative Hall was the first one since the August 29 Parliamentary Elections and may possibly be the last one of this Wescot-Williams III Cabinet.

Wescot-Williams and Finance Minister Martin Hassink thanked a number of people and departments with whom they have worked in the past years. Both ministers will not be part of what is expected to be the Marcel Gumbs Cabinet.

Hassink was asked at the press conference if he was willing to stay on as finance minister should the minister candidate for his ministry not pass his security and integrity screening. Hassink said he was willing to stay on for at least three months to try to complete the draft 2015 budget. He sees himself more effective as an advisor to the ministry than as the minister.

Vorst heirs offer a reduced land price

PHILIPSBURG--Government has been offered the Vorst land in Cay Hill for US $1 million less by the heirs to the property. This now puts the purchase price at US $4.5 million.

Caretaker Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams said the Council of Ministers has not taken a decision on whether to accept the offer. Her preference is to leave the offer for the incoming cabinet to make a decision.

Outgoing Public Housing, Environment, Spatial Planning and Infrastructure VROMI Minister Maurice Lake had come under much fire for opting to purchase the land, instead of following an earlier proposal with the heirs for government to lease land.

The purchase price was higher than the lease price. Lake's argument was an outright purchase would save government in the long run.

The land is envisioned for mixed-use with affordable housing for young professionals and small commercial ventures. Those ventures included a sewing centre that was heavily pushed by former independent Member of Parliament Patrick Illidge.

The outgoing cabinet is "striving to finalise the purchase of Plantations Industry and Golden Rock (commonly called Emilio Wilson Estate). The acquisition of the land is "in the final stages."

The purchase of the land was approved in the amendments to the 2014 budget in September. A loan was secured for the purchase after the amendment was ratified by Parliament.

Hassink: Govt seeks more tax compliance to generate income

PHILIPSBURG--Generating income through more tax compliance, rather than increasing taxes continues to be the aim of government. Reducing expenditures is also an integral part making government financially stable, says outgoing Finance Minister Martin Hassink.

Both of those approaches were employed in drafting the 2015 country budget. The budget is deemed "far too late already" to meet all the required deadlines. "This year it was very challenging to handle budget as all the ministries had plans and wish lists that far exceeded the available ceilings," Hassink said.

Some final steps need to be taken before budget is presented to Parliament for ratification. Those steps include the final handling of the draft budget in the Council of Ministers on Tuesday and review by the Advisory Council.

The Committee for Financial Supervision CFT has given its initial comments on the draft budget that stands at NAf. 445 million. That amount was based on realised income in the first half of 2014. The second half of the year saw "a reduction" of income.

That reduction of income in the second half of the year has led to CFT questioning the final budget figure. Government is "contesting" CFT's stance by coming up with arguments why the figure is a viable estimate.

"We will not adjust the budget," Hassink said.

CFT wants government to compensate for the NAf. 12 million in losses for the past years in the 2015 budget. Hassink said this would mean more cuts to operational expenses. "We came with alternatives, so hopefully they [CFT – Ed.] will agree."

Looking ahead, Hassink said the country needs a plan to get it out of the annual "struggle" with the budget and "the cutting to the bone" with expenses. He has been working on a plan to structurally increase government's income to some NAf. 500 million. That amount will allow government "to comfortably budget" its expenses.

Several projects to increase income and reduce expenses are ongoing. Compliance actions include reducing backlog in compliance assessments, reporting payments to service and goods providers of government to the tax administration, integration of work processes at the tax administration (levying-collecting-auditing), and structured income analysis with follow-up actions.

Creating awareness via monthly income reports to the ministries for analysis and follow-up with the goal of truly making the ministries responsible for their budgets in 2015 is also another approach to be used, said Hassink.

In the short-term, government will seek to collect overdue long lease fees, business license fees and director's license fees. Hassink said businesses that have not paid their license fees can soon expect a tax Marshall at their door for payments.

Other income increasing actions are restructuring tax legislation (medium term), adjustment of economic tariffs, collecting dividends and concessions and other contributions from government-owned companies and institutions by law.

At the end of 2013, the combined net asset value of our four main companies amounted to more than NAf. 500 million with cash reserves on the banks of more than NAf. 240 million of which NAf. 80 million was restricted.

The financial report for the first three quarters of 2014 will be presented to the Council of Ministers next week. After the ministers' approval, Parliament will receive the report.

The total income for the first nine months amounts to NAf. 334.4 million. This is about NAf. 4.4 million below budget, according to Hassink.

The total expenses for the first nine months stand at NAf. 326.9 million. This amount is about NAf. 2.4 million above budget,

The incomes and expenditures for the first nine months show a deviation from 2014 budget of minus NAf. 6.8 million.

Hassink is hopeful that in spite of this government will end the year with "a zero balance."

"Despite a projected economic growth, main income sources like wage tax and turnover tax don't show growth. That worries me a little. This may mean that projected economic growth is not realized or that non-compliance is growing, or a combination of that," Hassink said.

The increase in expenses is mainly due to an increase in personnel expenses.

"Special attention needs to be given to the personnel expenses, personnel occupancy and efficiency, remuneration packages, overtime and payroll related social cost (pension plan and medical expenses)," he said.

Man tries in vain to get friend’s unclaimed corpse buried after two months in freezer

~ Issue highlights need for legislation ~

PHILIPSBURG--A man has expressed grave concern and has labelled as inhumane the fact that the corpse of his late friend Dick Brand, a Dutch national who passed away on September 25, has been lying unclaimed in the freezer of a funeral home for two months, although he has been trying to get authorities to help find a solution to bury the body.

The issue has exposed the dire need for legislation to be put in place to outline the exact procedures that should be followed in cases where the next of kin cannot be located for persons who pass away in St. Maarten. Royal Funeral Home general manager Dwain Meyers said there is no legislation currently in place and this was not the first time it had encountered a situation of this nature.

The friend Ger Walraven said numerous efforts had been made to contact Brand's next of kin in the Netherlands to no avail and futile attempts had been made for authorities to help bring closure to this matter.

In an invited comment, The Netherlands Representation Office in Philipsburg said that while it had tried "as much as possible" to help locate a next of kin, the office had no funds and was "not responsible" for paying for return tickets or funerals.

Social Affairs acting head Peggy-Ann Dros-Richardson said the Department recognised the sensitivity of this case and although no provision was made in the Ordinance governing the process of one-time financial assistance for burial expenses at the Department of Social Services, it was working on having this matter resolved in the best interest of all parties involved, especially given the humanitarian impact. She is expected to meet with Walraven today to help him find a solution.

A grief-stricken Walraven told The Daily Herald on Wednesday that his friend had been hospitalised at St. Maarten Medical Center (SMMC) on September 16. He passed away on September 25 and was transferred to a funeral home. Walraven said he had been attempting to have his friend buried since then.

No contact

Walraven said he had visited the Netherlands Representation Office in Philipsburg, which had attempted to contact family members to no avail. This was confirmed by the Office representative Bianca van der Lee, who said she had received the names of Brand's two daughters and his late wife, with a request for assistance to help locate the daughters so they could be informed of their father's passing.

"Dick had no contact with his daughters since 30 years. The last letters from them, found in the apartment of Dick, were about 30 years old, with a 30-year-old address. Attempts to speak to somebody at this address failed," Van der Lee told The Daily Herald.

"Subsequently, I have consulted the GBA (gemeentelijke basis administratie) in the Netherlands. Nothing came out of that. Dick nor his wife nor his daughters could be found in the system. The only thing that the Representation could offer was mental support to his only friend Ger. All this was done in the first week after his death."

She said, "All St. Maarteners have the Dutch nationality in general. The Representations (similar to an embassy) can provide assistance to Dutch in need/distress – Dutch who are listed in the Netherlands, Dutch without insurance – we are talking about travellers, tourists. We can decide to assist them when they are in trouble, it is no right. We try as much as possible to contact family and to mediate in that kind of circumstance. We have no funds and are not responsible for paying return tickets or funerals."

She said the late Brand was not listed in the Netherlands. His friend found "proof of citizenship" from the St. Maarten Department of Civil Registry (Census Office) in St. Maarten.

"However, we tried as much as possible to help Dick's friend Ger," the Representation added and said it sympathises with "him in the loss of his dear friend."

Social Affairs

Walraven said he also had visited Social Affairs about four to five times and had spoken to at least two of the workers requesting assistance to help bury his friend. He told this newspaper that in addition to visiting the office, he had left his phone number and was hoping that someone would contact him for a solution, but nothing had happened. Repeated visits bore no fruit.

Dros-Richardson said the Department of Social Services preferred not to play out confidential matters in the media. "We respect the right of persons who wish to engage the local media, but maintain above all else our stance to protect the privacy of persons." However, she said Social Affairs was working on having this matter resolved in the best interest of all.

Funeral Home

Meyers said the issue brought to the fore the need for legislation to outline the exact procedures that funeral homes should follow when they encountered issues like this. He said the hands of the funeral home were tied, as there were no laws regulating what it should do under these circumstances.

In an effort to have similar situations addressed in the past, the funeral home would contact the Prosecutor's Office and the Public Health Department and obtain permission to bury persons. He said the funeral home could not take a unilateral decision to bury someone if this was not backed by law, because it could encounter problems if a next-of-kin eventually surfaced after a burial.

In the specific case of Brand, Meyers said Walraven had visited the funeral home and contact had been made with someone from Social Affairs, who had informed the funeral home that payment would have been made for the body to be buried, but even though there was communication with the individual and an e-mail had been sent about a week ago, Meyers said nothing had been forthcoming to date.

Meyers said the funeral home originally had been contacted after the man passed away and it had been informed that a next-of-kin could not be found. He said it would not have been ethical to leave the body just because there was no next-of-kin, so the funeral home had picked it up. He stressed that a "system needs to be put in place" and regulation by law for issues such as this.

Walraven wanted to bury his friend, but said he would have had to sign documents that would bind him to cover the high funeral home expenses. He declined to do so.

SZV

At one point Walraven also visited Social and Health Care Insurances SZV for assistance, which he said indicated that it could up to four months' pension, which would amount to just over NAf. 4,000. Walraven said he had been told that cremation alone would cost US $2,750. SZV could not be reached for comment.

Estranged

Walraven said Brand had been registered as living in St. Maarten since December 1987. He worked as an electrical engineer and at one point also worked as a data administrator for a shopping centre and for Monte Vista.

Asked whether Brand had an estranged relationship with his daughters, Walraven said his late friend seldom had spoken about his children. He said Brand's wife had died in Curaçao some time back and issues had started when the daughters did not attend that funeral, possibly due to financial constraints. Brand's issues with his children were further compounded just over a decade ago when they had a "falling out" over a misunderstanding.

Walraven said a solution to bury his late friend should have been found a long time ago. "He was two months already in a freezer and this is inhumane. Social Affairs is not working with the funeral home. These organisations don't work together and the funeral home is just sitting back, because whoever is going to pay the bill finally has to pay US $95 for every day the body is there. They don't give a damn what is happening or who cares for whom," he said.

He looks forward to the matter being resolved in whatever way possible, so that his friend finally can be laid to rest.

~Judy Fitzpatrick~

Alexandre Guerre winner of Heritage Photo contest

page1a161MARIGOT-- First prize overall in the Heritage Photo competition organised by Association Les Fruits de Mer went to Alexandre Guerre and top honours in the youth competition were awarded to Luna Valenti, it was announced Wednesday.

Their photos, along with many other fantastic entries, will be featured at the upcoming 2014 Heritage Photo Exhibition on December 6 where residents and tourists alike are invited to celebrate island heritage and the work of photographers of all ages.

The gala opening of the exhibition will be held at 7:00pm on Saturday, December 6, at Lagoonies Bistro and Bar, Lagoon Marina, in Cole Bay. This event is free and open to the public and will include large-format displays, voting for the People's Choice Award and an official prize ceremony at 9:00pm. The winning works and other entries will be on display throughout the following week.

The Heritage Photo Contest and Exhibition was developed by Les Fruits de Mer to showcase art created here on St. Martin/St. Maarten, and to engage residents– especially kids– in thinking about their heritage. Be The Change SXM Foundation provided funding for the contest and exhibition.

The panel of judges faced many difficult decisions when selecting the winners of the 2014 Heritage Photo Contest. With over 75 entries the competition was fierce and the works submitted beautifully captured many diverse aspects of the island's heritage.

The theme of this year's contest, "Vibrant and Vulnerable" followed an unusual format and was chosen to raise awareness about the island's unique natural, cultural and historic heritage, as well as the threats facing this heritage and the need to preserve it.

Each entry included two photos– one representing a "Vibrant" aspect of the island and one representing a "Vulnerable" aspect– and the artist's statement about the photo selections. This format was very open to creative interpretation, and the entries that poured in touched on many different facets of local heritage, from plants, animals and landscape, to history, architecture and culture.

One remaining prize, the $100 People's Choice Award, will be decided by those who attend the opening of the exhibition.

"We're thrilled to invite everyone to take the opportunity to enjoy the stunning, thought-provoking photos at this exhibition," said Les Fruits de Mer President Jenn Yerkes, "And, of course, to vote for their favourite!" Voting will be done by ballot between 7:00pm and 9:00pm.

For those who cannot attend, or would like a sneak preview of the entries that were submitted, an online gallery of entries can be found at http://www.lesfruitsdemer.com/category/vibrant-and-vulnerable/.

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