Hon. Rodwell Ferguson Budget Speech 2017

Madam Speaker,

Let me at the very outset state that this 2017/2018 budget is bogus, and it is the pathetic intent of this Prime Minister to try to pull a wool over the eyes of the ordinary Belizean man and woman. While we anticipated an increase in taxes primarily GST and Business tax, what we have gotten is a UDP Administration that has taken us full circle back to the dreaded VAT under the Esquivel Administration.  The Prime Minister and his Cabinet, Madam Speaker, has outdone Esquivel’s 15% VAT by introducing an increase in Environmental Tax or ET from 2% to 3%.  With GST at 12.5%, add to that the 3% ET, we end up with 15.5% which is more than Esquivel’s Killa VAT.

We know this Prime Minister is trying to realize an additional 80 million dollars in taxes, and is even lauding a budget surplus of 3% of GDP. Madam Speaker, The Prime Minister and his Government has caused the depletion and continues their rigorous campaign aimed at destroying what was a thriving middle class. It is the middle class that is going to have to foot the brunt of these tax increases.  At the rate we are going, our country will be left with only two classes, the very rich and the very poor.

Madam Speaker, the Prime Minister indicated that he would keep his promise to the Teachers and Public Officers and would proceed with the raise that is due to them. What this Prime Minister did not say is that he is going to be taking it all back, with announced increases in Fuel Tax, Cement, and ET, it is these very teachers and public officers that will see their raises disappear and will find the buying power of their dollar greatly diminished.

The so called middle class will now find it so much more difficult to build a home or to get to and from work.  Add to that the lowering of the threshold for GST on electricity consumption from $200 to $100 and we see again it is the middle class that must bear yet another tax burden.

Madam Speaker the Prime Minister and his advisors know fully well that our country is in dire economic state. There is a 25 percent decline in our traditional exports: namely, Oranges, Bananas, and Farm Shrimps.  Papaya died a sudden death and for some months now there is limited to no oil exports. We are truly an economy in crisis.  I cannot understand how and that is a big how with our economy already underperforming and our county not yet out of a recession that saw us with a deficit of 1.5% of GDP, what magic wand can this Prime Minister and his cabinet wave that will grow our struggling economy producing a surplus of 3 -3.5% of GDP, to keep the promise made to the Bond Holders when the Barrow Bond 3.0 was restructured for the third time.  The bond holders know full well that the country will not be able to maintain a 3 percent surplus and will be forced to go under an IMF standby arrangement. That is what they want, Madam Speaker, and the Prime Minister can say whatever he wants, but the harsh reality, the TRUTH is, that we are well on our way to the point where the IMF will take over and dictate the economic pace in Belize.

Madam speaker, when our economy began to free-fall and to be more specific, when our traditional industries started to decline, what did this Administration do to intervene?  Little or nothing.  In other countries agriculture-based industries are subsidized by the Government in an effort to boost experts and minimize the balance of trade.  Is it any wonder Madam Speaker why it is we cannot compete with goods coming from other countries?  A classic example occurred recently with the oversupply of potatoes to the market.  It was easier for a government clearly at odds with the productive sector to give an import concessionary permit to a UDP crony to import potatoes and have the middle man make money than to ensure that the hard work and investment made by our local farmers and producers paid off.

The shrimp farmers tried all in the power to rectify the loss of farm shrimps and this Government is yet to set up a task force and invite exports to figure how this situation can be corrected and this disease combatted. There is a reduction in the purchase price of bananas with the takeover of the Japanese company from Fyffes.  This again will have some impact on our fragile economy especially in the South.

Citrus continues to take a blow having to start a late season because there is no early variety oranges and a major decline of some 75% in grapefruit production.  This is a serious blow and it occurs at a time when the price of frozen citrus concentrate is at an all-time high.

As I speak, Madam Speaker, we are already at the half way point for the citrus delivery season, and it is reason for concern that  when you pass Belize Food Products Limited in Alta Vista,  the only citrus factory that is operating, only a few trucks are there. Another sign of the decline is that despite the peak of the citrus season there is currently no acceptance of citrus on the weekends.  This results in the workers working for just his/her basic wage with no weekend work.  This latest cutback is having a crippling effect across the board and making it so much more difficult for parents to educate their children and provide for their families.

The end result is more anger and frustration and this is directly linked to the increase in violent crimes and family disputes in the villages.  This Madam Speaker is the result when we have a Government whose only interest is winning elections.  Most of the oranges are coming from the Cayo District and the La Democracia area. This decline in Citrus Production will plunge even more people into abstract poverty.

Large farms like Kerbo and Citrus & Cattle Farms are diverting into coconuts. I welcome the advent of TEXBEL Limited that is planting huge acres of coconuts and encouraging other farmers to do so.  This investment is creating employment and diversifying our products in the South.

Madam Speaker, while quite a bit of effort is concentrated on tourism, we would be foolhardy to put all our eggs in one basket. Tourism as we know it is a very fragile industry and can be adversely affected by one major hurricane or storm. Those in the West and other parts of the country have complained that they are not feeling all the hype associated with the purported increase in overnight arrivals.  I must also speak to the Cruise Industry.  Those of us in the South hailed the investment of Norwegian Cruise Lines and anticipated that they too would pay ahead tax to the Government of Belize especially given the economic situation our country currently faces.

They are in fact operating like a country within a country. Just imagine as the elected representative for the area I have to get permission and an official invitation from the Minister of Tourism to visit Harvest Caye. The effect that NCL has on the region is far from the dream that was sold to the people of the South.  While they employ some Belizeans, very little entrepreneurs will stand to benefit from this venture.

Even the Catamaran that ferries the guests from the island to the mainland is owned and operated by N.C.L.  This Madam Speaker is after local boat owners invested in larger boats in the hope that they would have landed a contract to ferry the Tourists from Harvest Caye to the Mainland.  The sad truth is that less than SIX bus loads come off the island on a weekly basis and it appears that there is no reason for the tourist to leave the island because the island offers a level of elegance.

Why would passengers want to go to Placencia or Seine Bight or any other place? The people of Independence thought that they would have seen direct benefit in hair braiding, taxi service and the sale of local arts and crafts.  This was folly and a dream because everything is done on the island. Even Belize dollars have no value in that country within our country.

This project was a prime example of the deception and lack of people centeredness that has come to characterize this current UDP Administration.  Those of us in the South must together echo our total disappointment in how our people have been treated by NCL with the apparent permission of our Tourism Minister and his government.

Madam Speaker, in the area of School Transportation for the Ministry of Education, I must bring to your attention and to that of our nation, that although some $7,363,044 was budgeted, only 6,900,000 plus was dispersed.  The decrease could well be attested to the 11 days strike action by the BNTU when they had to stand up against the level of corruption so rampant in this UDP Government.  But the point I wish to bring to your attention is the safety of our children who must ride those school buses that lacks proper repairs because the operators have not gotten a raise since the P.U.P was in Government.

Imagine they are running daily without a side man and the Ministry ignored it to satisfy the operators because the weekly payment is not enough to maintain the bus and a side man more so due to the especially high cost of fuel.

When those buses leave the school compound there is little to no control on the buses. Many of the students are standing while the bus is moving. Just this week ago, Madam Speaker, there was a minor accident with one of the school buses and thank God no child was hurt. I am appealing to the Minister of Education to look into this matter.  Irrespective of the financial challenges to finance the school runs, the operators need an increase so that they can have a paid conductor on each bus.

The tires on a number of the buses needs to be replaced but the local authorities are closing their eyes because their government is in office. This a matter of urgent national concern and must be addressed with a level of priority.

I will at this time Madam Speaker zero in on the 26 villages and communities I represent. I represent a constituency of almost ten thousand voters spanning an area of 80 miles and this does not include the Placencia Peninsula. My colleagues in Belize City have it so much easier when compared to the rural constituencies. I opted not to challenge every village in the village council elections because I realized that we would in due time arrive at this juncture where the Government cannot afford to sustain 192 villages across this country.  It is very frustrating for these village councils that have absolutely no resources to do anything for their villages.  The feeling of uselessness and frustration is rising. This Madam Speaker is a recipe for disaster.

Independence is my biggest village but lacks all the basic infrastructure even though their contribution to the general revenue is significant. They hail from the banana belt and boast an active port. One of the worst roads in Independence is the Malacate Road where N.C.L tours pass every day. That is to show that there is no regard for the condition of this road the customers must drive on.  In NCL’s mind, they are making money and to hell with Belize’s infrastructure.

There is a spanking new paved access road to the village of San Juan and Cowpen acquired through the European Union. I initiated that project by telling the village council to write a letter to the European Union. Today they have a spanking new road that goes right around the village. I give Kudos to former Chairman Zabdiel Martinez and his village council to put the request together and I personally delivered it to the EU Office. I know that I will not get an invitation when this road is inaugurated and even if I am not personally invited, the people on the ground knows whose effort it was that got this project realized.

Red Bank, Georgetown, and Maya Mopan I am asking you to do the same by writing a letter to the European Union because you too fall within the banana belt. As a matter of fact the entire Stann Creek District is a part of the Banana Belt and we must take full advantage of the available funds so that your access road can be paved.

As I travel throughout the villages the complaint are the same village streets, farm roads, drainage, culverts, additional house lots, expansion of electricity and water. This is the cry in Indepenence, San Juan/Cowpen, Red Bank, Georgetown, Maya Mopan, San Roman, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Riversdale, Seine Bight, Placencia, Maya center, Sittee, Hopkins, Silk Grass, Mullins River, Pomona, Alta Vista, Steadfast. Valle Community, Middlesex, Hummmingbird Community, Kendal.

Last year I brought up the issue of Water Boards to Minister Pott as it relates to the illegality of how they were going about appointing new members to the Water Board. He told me to go to visit his office, which I did and was told to make recommendations and forward such recommendations to him. Due to the Christmas holiday I decided to put it on hold until the New Year. In the new year I got a call from the Ministry telling me to choose my representative on the board. I blankly objected and told him to take it all. This also happened back in 2013 when Senator Godwin Hulse was the Minister of Rural Development. He said he would govern by the law which he did in the first instances. He accepted the names from myself and the village Councils and approval was given. When cabinet heard about it he had to discontinue  and I was then informed that I could choose only one representative. Corruption in this Government is from the top to the bottom. I guess they say it is time to make mine also. I can give you some example and the Ministry is well aware and there seems to be no enforcement of paying back missing monies. Some of these villages are Maya Mopan, Silk Grass, Maya Center.

Madam Speaker it got so bad that the Pomona water board financed A candidate Campaign for his bid to become standard bearer for Stann Creek West. Hopkins U.D.P village council Chairman is crying foul because he has absolutely no input as to who is to be on their water board and elected caretaker/undertaker decides who should go on the Water-board.

This Madam Speaker is illegal and undemocratic

The giant BtL Is acquiring properties across the country in villages with total disregard to elected village councils all they see are the erection of towers. In valley community villagers were band to accommodate a parcel of land that was already surveyed because of its altitude and the experts believe that eventually if the vegetation is tampered with there could be an erosion. Btl went in without consulting with elected village council bulldoze the land knocked down an old water tank and start there construction.

United Community Primary School was broken into and sabotage by burning the entire floor where the principal office is and it seems there is no emergency funds to do the necessary repairs.

I really taught that the Ministry of tourism would have worked with communities not far from Harvest  caye  to bring tourist to their villages but instead they come into the maya villages and buy their produce at a cheap price and sell on the island triple what they buy it for.  All in all life in these rural communities are becoming very dismal. When employment is becoming scarce. I hear the Prime Minister talking that shrimps will rebound by March. We are now in March and the shrimp industry is in the same position it was in in December 2016. For sure shrimps will not put the country over the 3 percent surplus.

As I close Madam Speaker, let me turn our attention for a few minutes to the Ministry of Works the Ministry that I shaddow and to ask and demand answers as to how tax payers dollars were spent from the Ministry of Works.  The budget estimates for last fiscal year approved $20,982,521 to the Ministry of Works, but almost 11 million more was spent totally $31,356,926.   Of interest we note as we analyze line item after line item, that the bulk of the increased spending that were unbudgeted and for which the Honorable Minister of Works must account went to primarily four line items:

  1. While not a penny was budgeted for Hurricane Assistance, some $4,025,046 were spent. The Belizean people needs to know how there funds were spent, and where they were spent.
  2. While only 200,000 was budgeted for the Northern Highway Feasibility Study and Detailed Design, the actual amount spent was $1,045,000. What accounts for this huge increase and how can this much spending be justified for a feasibility study and design?  We demand answers Minister of works.
  1. There was $0 budgeted for the Haulover Creek Dredging but again $1,513,336 dollars was spent. How do we justify this amount of money?  We do understand that the dredging needed to be done and that this situation was left for far too long without the necessary attention given to it but the cost is outrageous.
  2. Though no monies were initially budgeted for the Rehabilitation of the Hummingbird Highway, some $9,016,100 was spent. I must make mention that the work done on this highway was long overdue and it is good to know that my many appeals in this honorable house was finally adhered to.

Now madam speaker, let me quickly review some of the line items that got absolutely no attention from the Ministry of Works.  In last year’s budget, $836,532 were budgeted for Flood Mitigation in Belize City.  Not a penny of this was spent and I beg to question why?  There was a saying that I must quote at this moment that made mockery of the work done by Mayor Darrell Bradley and the City Council relative to the cementing of a number of streets in Belize City.  The saying says, “Only a man with no Brain builds streets with no Drain.”  Belize City continues to have a serious drainage problem and to see that monies were budgeted but not dispersed for this vital project is sad and we demand an explanation.

We also note madam speaker that at a time when the government has been told that the wage bill is too high, that the MINSTER OF WORKS still went ahead and increased the number of employees in the Ministry to a whopping 398 employees, the bulk of them being unestablished workers who can be sent home with a whiff if they say or do anything against this administration.

Now to take a quick look at this year’s budget.  Madam Speaker, not a penny, and  I mean not a penny has been budgeted by this UDP government for Feeder Roads.  So our farmers again must suffer through bad roads and poor access to and from their farms.  Our villagers will also suffer because not a dry cent has been budgeted for Streets and Drains in the villages all 192 of them.

Our cane farmers Madam Speaker will not be spared either.  While we already know that troubled times are ahead for the Sugar Industry, it is again sad indeed that nada, nothing, zilch is budgeted for the rehabilitation of Sugar Roads in both the Orange Walk and Corozal Districts.  Don’t you guys here the cry of the poor cane farmers Member for Cayo Central?  Do you care even just a bit for the farmers that must move their products on those roads that are in such horrendous state?

Then Madam Speaker, nothing is set aside in this bogus budget for Maintenance of Bridges, Ferries nor Infrastructure Projects in our rural communities.  What poor planning and lack of vision I see in the Budget for the Ministry of Works.  But look a little further into the proposed budget and you will see $5 Million dollars budgeted for the George Price Highway to Airport Link.

I beg to question where our priorities lie Member for Cayo Central?  Our farmers throughout the country get nothing for their terrible roads, our villages get no help with their drainage and infrastructural projects, no maintenance for our bridges and ferries but $5 Million is budgeted for a link that is of little to no priority. What this UDP government is doing is simply trying to appease some of their UDP Stalwarts who own land in this area and are trying to dead raise.  This is uncalled for, this spending is unnecessary and could be diverted to the much needed re-registration exercise that is due in July of this year.  You really must get your acts together Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. Member for Cayo Central.

Madam Speaker I end just how I started.  This budget is bogus and I cannot support it.

Thank you Madam Speaker.