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Financial instruction for St. Maarten unavoidable

page3a087~Minister Hassink relays objections to The Hague~

By Suzanne Koelega

THE HAGUE--St. Maarten has faced the threat of a budgetary instruction before, but this time there seems no escaping: the Kingdom Council of Ministers is expected to give St. Maarten an instruction on September 4, to get its 2015 budget in compliance with the requirements of the Financial Supervision Law.

According to St. Maarten Finance Minister Martin Hassink, in the Netherlands earlier this week for talks with Dutch authorities, the measure against St. Maarten appeared unavoidable. Not because St. Maarten is not cooperating or obstructing efforts to get its budget balanced, but because in his opinion the country is not granted sufficient leeway to realise the targets that have been set.

Then there is also the lack of cooperation from the Dutch Government to assist St. Maarten in the process of arriving at a sound financial management, to improve tax compliance and to find a sustainable solution for St. Maarten's structural finance related issues.

Hassink met with Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Ronald Plasterk in The Hague on Thursday to discuss the pending instruction. The Committee for Financial Supervision CFT in early July advised the Kingdom Council of Ministers to give St. Maarten an instruction based on the Kingdom Financial Supervision Law.

The CFT has not given a positive advice on the 2015 budget which was already approved by the St. Maarten Parliament in January 2015. According to the CFT, St. Maarten has insufficiently complied with the agreements that were made in February to find a solution for the payment arrears, the debts incurred in previous years and a restructuring of the pension and health care system.

The financial instruction would order St. Maarten to compensate the deficits of previous years, in total some NAf. 60 million, in the 2015-2018 budgets, pay off the payment arrears in three years to, among others, the St. Maarten Pension Fund APS and the Social and Health Care Insurances SZV amounting to NAf. 189 million, to adjust the 2015 budget to include all health care and pension costs, and to revise the existing health care and pension system.

Also, the pensionable age must be raised to 62 on short term. Hassink said that this law should be approved before the end of this year. He said that indeed the current health care and pension system was unaffordable and needed urgent revision, but that it was unrealistic to execute this revision, which will start in 2016, under terms and timeframe set by the CFT.

St. Maarten has given its vision and indicated its objections to the instruction and the CFT requirements per letter to the Ministry of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations BZK in August following the proposal of the CFT to the Kingdom Council of Ministers. This letter hasn't resulted in a change of position of the CFT, explained Hassink in an interview with The Daily Herald on Friday.

Unrealistic

St. Maarten is not against the instruction itself, but it does not agree with the point of view that it is taking insufficient action to tackle the situation. "The terms set by the CFT are unrealistic. The biggest setback we are facing now is that without a positive advice of the CFT we cannot make the necessary capital investments. We have to solve matters, but we are not given the leeway to do so," said Hassink.

The Finance Minister mentioned as an example the Tax Department which was severely neglected under the Netherlands Antilles. The justice sector was a in a similar position when St. Maarten was part of the Netherlands Antilles. "I have been asking attention for the Tax Department for several years now, but so far we have barely received cooperation from the Dutch."

Hassink pointed out that the request for assistance to reorganise the Tax Department as well as help to fill certain vacancies at the St. Maarten Ministry of Finance was also turned down, despite the fact that St. Maarten has offered to pay for this. "It is a vicious circle: the Netherlands is demanding that we take measures, but doesn't assist in the process."

St. Maarten wants to make use of the extensive ICT programme that was introduced at the Tax Department of Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba, but it needs to be adapted so it can be used by the St. Maarten Tax Department, said Hassink. For that, money is needed, which is a problem.

Hassink has had positive talks with the Netherlands about the hiring of Dutch personnel for the St. Maarten Tax Department per early 2016. "We are close to a solution. But we also need to realise the much needed reorganisation of the Tax Department, the ICT system and the establishing of one, central Tax Department where the levying and collection of taxes are no longer spread over two buildings."

St. Maarten has no problem with external financial supervision, but it should be put in perspective and the conditions and terms should be realistic. "We need assistance in order to make progress," said Hassink.

Starting position

He noted that St. Maarten has never had a "healthy starting position" when the Netherlands Antilles was dissolved and St. Maarten attained Country status on October 10, 2010, because only a portion of St. Maarten's debt was paid off by the Netherlands while St. Maarten also had to take over a substantial part of the remaining debt of the Netherlands Antilles.

St. Maarten has a claim in the process to settle the division of assets of the former Netherlands Antilles. "We should receive, whereas Curaçao and the Netherlands have to pay. The process to settle this matter is going far too slow. We had already expected an advance in 2014, but so far nothing," said Hassink.

Referring to Thursday's meeting with Plasterk, which was also attended by St. Maarten Justice Minister and Vice Prime Minister Dennis Richardson, Hassink said it was clear that the Kingdom Council of Ministers would not deviate from the CFT advice to give St. Maarten an instruction. "So it will be coming down."

Once the Kingdom Council of Ministers has taken its decision, which is scheduled for the meeting next Friday, St. Maarten will be filing a formal objection at the Council of State, as is regulated in the Financial Supervision Law. "This will not defer the instruction. It is a mere formality," said Hassink.

Asked to give his view on St. Maarten's finances, Hassink said that the financial situation was generally good, but that measures were necessary to achieve improvement and to make it more sustainable. "Most of our problems are of a budgetary nature. Our debt position is good, better than the other countries in the Kingdom. But our track record is bad. We are accused of saying a lot and doing little."

Keep financial supervision for now, advises committee

THE HAGUE--Curaçao and St. Maarten have not reached the point where they can ensure maintaining healthy budgets on their own, wrote the Evaluation Committee for the Financial Supervision Law to the Kingdom Council of Ministers.

The committee led by former banker Ron Gomez Casseres said that despite all the work done since the dismantling of the former Netherlands Antilles per 10-10-10, particularly the financial management remained a point of concern.

The agreement at the time was to evaluate the law and related Committee for Financial Supervision CFT after five years. However, the time is not yet considered ripe to end the special kingdom legislation law completely or even partially to prevent new accumulation of debts as occurred in the Antillean constellation.

Based on a review of 2012, 2013 and 2014, the evaluation committee could not conclude that the two Caribbean countries had independently complied in full with the content of the law. While the budgets started within the norms set, the implementation leaves much room for improvement.

“It is often heard that the financial management at certain ministries is showing stronger progress than at others. The impression exists that making, executing and controlling the budget is a job of the Finance Minister rather than the whole cabinet,” the Evaluation Committee said.

St. Maarten and Curaçao are urged to invest in their own supervision mechanisms, making use of existing or if necessary new organisations. The committee also suggests providing unambiguous criteria to be met for the next evaluation, which it says conceivably can take place before 2018.

Both countries had objected to the initial version of the report back in June. The Kingdom Council of Ministers is not likely to deviate from the advice.

UN wants to scrub Black Pete’s face

page8a087AMSTERDAM--The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has released its report on discrimination in the Netherlands following a meeting with the Dutch delegation in Venice, Italy, last week. The committee highlighted a number of concerns and made recommendations regarding, among other things, Black Pete, ethnic profiling by the police, racist statements made by politicians, anti-Semitic chants during soccer games, the asylum policy and ethnic-bullying in schools.

"Considering that even a deeply rooted cultural tradition does not justify discriminatory practices and stereotypes, the Committee recommends that [the Netherlands – Ed.] actively promotes the elimination of those features of the character of Black Pete which reflect negative stereotypes and are experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery. The Committee recommends that the State find a reasonable balance, such as a different portrayal of Black Pete and ensure respect of human dignity and human rights of all inhabitants of the State," the Committee writes.

Black Pete, or "Zwarte Piet" in Dutch, helps the Dutch version of Santa Claus distribute presents every year in early December and is displayed as a silly, mischievous and indolent character, usually animated by an actor in blackface. In recent years, he has become a lightning rod for a cultural debate, and has even sparked violence.

During his weekly press conference on Friday, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Black Pete was not a matter of state. "Beware of a country where the State decides what folk tradition should look like. I really think that is something for the people to decide and not a matter of politics," said Rutte.

The Black Pete issue was a small element of the report on the Netherlands which is produced every five years and looks at racism and discrimination in general.

The committee noted that not all Dutch municipalities have an anti-discrimination policy that is in line with the State's policy on anti-discrimination and added that it is the national government's responsibility to ensure that all cities comply.

They also expressed concerns about "incidents of racist and xenophobic hate speech emanating from a number of extremist political parties and politicians," the prevalence of "racist discourse in the media" and the increase of racist statements and threats on the Internet.

In this regard, the Committee is particularly concerned about the sharp increase in discrimination against members of Jewish and Muslim communities, including the reported increase in verbal abuse, harassment, and physical violence against Jewish and Muslim persons.

The fact that anti-Semitic chants are "commonplace at football stadiums" is also a big problem, the Committee stated.

The UN Committee recommends that the Netherlands "adopt a firm stand against the use of hate speech for political purposes, increase efforts to combat racially motivated hate speech and ensure that criminal acts perpetrated on grounds of 'intersectionality' between ethnic origin and religion are duly investigated and prosecuted."

The Committee also recommends that a national plan of action against racial discrimination be developed and adopted, especially given the fact of continuing racial profiling by the police which has "produced feelings of mistrust among minority groups and discourages them from accessing help when they are victims of crime or rights abuses."

According to the Committee, the current policy on migrant integration has shifted from the State to migrant communities. "This approach puts migrants in particularly vulnerable situations at risk of receiving insufficient attention and support, leaves them vulnerable to social exclusion and hampers their integration."

They are also concerned about the asylum policy stating that undocumented migrants only receive assistance if they comply with their own expulsion.

"The Committee reiterates its previous recommendations, and urges the State to ensure that its integration policies reflect the responsibilities of the State," the Committee said in its report.

The government should also ensure that undocumented migrants are provided with food and shelter in all circumstances prior to deportation and that they have access to healthcare in all parts of the Dutch Kingdom, which is currently not the case in Curaçao and Aruba.

The Netherlands has to report back to the Committee in 2019 on changes and improvements made.

Erika passes St. Maarten without major incident

 page6e086PHILIPSBURG--Tropical Storm Erika passed St. Maarten/St. Martin on Thursday without any major incident. There were some reports of minor wind damage. All government services and schools resume as of today after Thursday’s closure due to the passing of the storm.

St. Maarten was spared any damage to property or loss of life as the storm passed. However, the island of Dominica did not fare as well; that island sustained extensive property damage and the tragic loss of at least four lives in floodwaters accumulated from rain dumped by Erika on the very mountainous country.

Today, Friday, was deemed “a normal business day” by Prime Minister Marcel Gumbs when he gave the “all clear” for reopening on Thursday evening.

Princess Juliana International Airport SXM halted operations on Thursday because of the heavy winds and gusts. The airport is back in full operation today.

Leeward Islands Air Transport (LIAT), which connects St. Maarten with Dominica, announced that all fights into and out of that island have been cancelled until further notice due to flooding of the runway at Dominica’s Douglas-Charles Airport. All flights north of Antigua remained cancelled up to press time.

Affected passengers are asked by the airline to monitor its website

www.liat.com, Facebook and Twitter feeds for updated information.

Utilities company GEBE stayed true to its pledge to provide electricity and water throughout the passing of the storm. Up the press time, only sections of Middle Region appeared to have experienced power loss due to a downed high tension cable. The company’s crew worked on restoring power as soon as the gusty conditions calmed down.

St. Maarten/St. Martin remained under tropical storm warning up to 8:30pm on Thursday. However, Gumbs gave the all clear at 6:00pm for restaurants and casinos to reopen. Gumbs ordered all businesses in the country closed at midnight Thursday.

There was some confusion about the tropical storm warning late last night. The Miami-based National Hurricane Center stated in its 8:00pm bulletin that the Meteorological Service of St. Maarten (MDS) “has discontinued” the tropical storm warning for St. Maarten, while the MDS’ “Special Weather Bulletin” issued at 8:30pm was headlined “Tropical storm warning remains in effect for St. Maarten.”

Gumbs said in his 6:00pm Thursday press statement that the warning was still in place, because the country would continue to experience some gusty to near gale force winds from time to time. Erika was expected to produce some heavy rainfall last night into this morning. Hillside residents were told to exercise caution after heavy rainfall.

Gumbs called on residents to remain vigilant, because the hurricane season is not yet over, “We still have three more months to go through.”

He thanked residents, visitors, and the business community for their understanding and cooperation. “The measures that have been taken were of a precautionary nature in order to ensure the safety of the community and our visitors,” said Gumbs.

The Court of First Instance was closed on Thursday and will resume operations today. All court sessions scheduled for Thursday were postponed until further notice. Persons who require further information on their cases can call Shulaika Gustina at the Courthouse, tel. 546-6114 or fax 542-5451.

   Preparations for the passing of Erika led to the cancellation of an information session entitled “Breaking the Silence: Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect” that was scheduled in Belvedere Community Centre for Wednesday, August 26. The session will be rescheduled in the coming days.

The White and Yellow Cross Foundation is expected to resume its two-day care facilities – SBC Educational Facility and the Psychogeriatric day care – today, after Thursday’s closure.

St. Maarten Medical Center (SMMC) operating room, outpatient clinic, dialysis department and administrative department all reopen today.

Despite the closure on Thursday, dialysis patients scheduled for dialysis received treatment.

 

 

Man shot in stomach in robbery at Guana Bay

~ Second home robbed ~

GUANA BAY--A man was shot in his stomach during an armed robbery at his home on Pen Shell Road in Guana Bay in the wee hours of Thursday morning.

A second home in the area also was robbed around the same time. Prosecutor Karola van Nie confirmed that there had been two robberies in Guana Bay. She said a man had been shot during one robbery, but his condition was not life-threatening.

The Daily Herald understands that the man was shot in his stomach. The bullet is said to have gone straight through his stomach, but he is said to be in stable condition after undergoing an operation.

A relative told The Daily Herald that four to five men had forced their way into the man's home through a bathroom window around 3:00am Thursday. The robbers carted off several items, including all the phones in the home.

Two family members, one of whom had returned from competing in track and field in the Netherlands, were home at the time and witnessed what transpired.

Police told the family that two American tourists also had been robbed and beaten up badly that night. This newspaper understands that the second armed robbery took place in Guy Estate, Guana Bay, around the same time. It could not be ascertained whether the second robbery in Guana Bay was associated with the two American tourists who reportedly were beaten up.

Acting police spokesperson Inspector Steven Carty said when contacted on Thursday that he did not have any information on either robbery.

Van Nie said no one had been arrested so far for the robberies. She said any information from the public on these incidents would be welcome. She declined to say what the circumstances of the two robberies were, whether the same suspects were suspected of both robberies, how many suspects authorities were looking for, what had been stolen in the two robberies and whether anyone else had been injured.

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