The battle lines were already drawn across the pothole-stricken streets of Belize City and the forces positioned to war for a US$1 cut of the cruise tourist head tax for the City—money that the Belize City Council argues is needed to finance important City operations, the most prominent being the repair of the old capital’s horribly degraded streets.
At 1:30 p.m. the Belize City Council held an emergency press conference to tell Central Government that unless the Council gets that US$1 cut of the US$7 tourists pay for coming to Belize, the Council would create “inconveniences” in the City. No doubt those “inconveniences” would have seriously impacted cruise tourism in the City. But by the end of the business day this evening – the Council agreed to stay its plan.
“As much as we were ready, set to go tomorrow to carry out our actions, we also have to be reasonable and look at the different players that are trying to assist and look at their concerns, but at the end of the day, we feel we were justified, because our first responsibility is to the residents of Belize City, and we know that we need whatever monies should be given to the council to fix streets and deal with sanitation situation,” said Mayor Moya. “The streets are only getting worse, so we need to deal with that situation. We will see more fixing up of the streets. If the business community wants to chip in to help fix the streets, they are welcome.”
While the BCC had not said so officially, we understand that its plan involved blocking off traffic from some of the major City streets, effectively shutting down the City.
We are reliably informed that anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 tourists would have come to the City tomorrow, Tuesday—many of them expecting to be shuttled off on exotic tours of Belize via the Belize City port, but with a blockade in effect they would have been unable to travel to their destinations.
Tomorrow would have been a hell of a Tuesday for tourists and City residents, but at 4:00 this evening the Mayor reportedly received a call from the Leader of the UDP Opposition, Hon. Dean Barrow, advising her that he had managed to broker a deal with Central Government.
Barrow reportedly dialogued with Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Hon. Said Musa, and Minister of Tourism, Hon. Godfrey Smith, and they gave their assurance that the BCC would get money.
But the agreement is not quite what the BTB wanted—at least in the long run. Government’s commitment to pay the Council is in line with a Memorandum of Understanding that the Council had signed with the Belize Tourism Board (BTB) last September, and that agreement to pay the BCC up to $1 million expires in March—two months from now.
Belize City mayor, Zenaida Moya, told our newspaper today that the BTB paid the Council $67,750 in September and $42,240 in October. On Tuesday the Council should be paid over $300,000—back payments for November, December and January, Mayor Moya told us late this evening.
While Central Government was able to stave off the Council’s protest slated for tomorrow, what is clear is that the Council and the Opposition will have to lobby for a more permanent solution to the problem.
Mayor Moya said that Central Government has agreed that monthly disbursements to the Council should resume immediately, and the Council should get a total of $824,466.80 for September 2006 to March 2007.
But there is a catch to this – the Council has to proceed with setting up a vendor and craft market, as stipulated in the MOU the Council had signed with the BTB last September – a condition that the Council has been resisting, because it says that’s the BTB’s job.
The Council contends that it needs that money, not for a craft market, but for the upkeep of the City, including paying sanitation workers and repairing potholes.
Furthermore, in speaking with our newspaper prior to the truce this evening, Mayor Moya had told us that stakeholders (vendors) had told the Council in a meeting that they don’t want to be confined to a vendor and craft market.
Now the Council has, clearly, compromised – and has agreed that it would pursue the project. When we asked her about this compromise, Mayor Moya said that she only made the compromise because tour operators promised that tourists would be shuttled through the vendor and craft market, so that vendors will be able to sell their products and benefit from the deal.
The Belize City Council makes it clear that this new agreement is without prejudice to the insistence that the US$1 cut of the head tax should become law, Mayor Moya reiterated late this evening.
It is the UDP Opposition, led by Mr. Barrow, which will, evidently, take up that matter in the National Assembly.
Ms. Moya said that last October the City Council hand-delivered two documents to the Government: a draft statutory instrument and a Cabinet paper to process the US$1 cut of the head tax into law. GOB did not even acknowledge receiving the documents, the Mayor told Amandala this evening.
Will the battle end with Government’s latest commitment to the Council? According to Mayor Moya, some major cruise operators have pledged their full support for the Council’s position, and have pledged that if Government does not come through for the Council, they are prepared to shut down the cruise tourism sector.
The Mayor said that the Council “serves notice” that if there is any more “bad faith” on Government’s part, the Council will take massive measures to shut down operations.
While the Council continues to lobby for the head tax, it continues to deal with a bigger financial challenge. The Council’s director of finance, Dwayne Davis, informed us this evening that the Council has had to use $1.2 million of a $3 million credit line it had gotten with the Bank of Nova Scotia for operating expenses—a purpose for which the financing facility was not intended.
The Council argues that its finances have been adversely affected because grants that Government had provided to the previous People’s United Party City Council were discontinued after March 2006, when the Opposition took office. The Council also claims that inherited debt, including old phone bills, income tax arrears of roughly $300,000 not paid in by the previous council even though the money was withheld from workers, and millions in bank loans, have negatively affected the Council’s bottom line.
Unfortunately, due to the lateness of the reports from the Council, we were unable to get input from the other parties – Central Government and the BTB, but we will continue to attempt to get their perspectives later this week.