BELIZE CITY, Tues. Apr. 21, 2020– Many are hoping that the COVID-19 pandemic that has demolished the global economy will make way for a brave new post-pandemic world, as countries begin to strive to rebuild their devastated economies. Although there have been a few countries which are not completely closed, most countries remain under lockdown to contain the novel coronavirus.
In Belize, the lockdown is scheduled to continue until the end of the month, but opening the country in gradual stages will fall on the shoulders of the National COVID-19 Taskforce.
In his last address to the nation that was video-taped from his home, Prime Minister Dean Barrow said that government revenue sources have dried up. On Monday, April 20, the government dispatched an email to the mayors of the country’s 9 municipalities, instructing them to cut their operating costs.
What the government correspondence did not address, however, is what assistance municipal bodies can expect.
According to three of the mayors whom we spoke to, they are concerned that the government has not even responded to correspondence which addressed some of their financial needs.
The question that must now be asked is whether or not the central government will abandon its responsibilities to the municipalities and leave them to fend for themselves, in order to fill the gaps in their finances that they suffered from the lockdown.
If the government’s letter is any indication of things to come, the municipalities were essentially told that they will have to retool their management and administration, and the way they provide services to businesses and residents.
Although there has been no mention of any financial assistance from government, the municipalities were told to streamline their expenditures, revise work plans, institute effective revenue collection mechanisms, and meet with financial institutions to work out credit facilities.
The irony of this position is that government had already admitted that the subvention that municipal bodies collect is inadequate.
Belize City mayor, Bernard Wagner, who recently concluded a twenty-one-day quarantine period, stated that his council had in late March submitted to government revised financial projections for the period April through June. Those projections, according to Wagner, outlined several scenarios but required some measure of financial support. To date the only assistance his council has received was the redirection of the subvention from Central Bank to the council. This April redirection was used to supplement revenues collected prior to the total lockdown of operations and, as a result, they were able to meet salaries for all 460 staff members for April 15 at a shared sacrifice/deferred arrangement.
The Mayor went on to say that the existing arrangement is unsustainable and without some level of infusion from government, something will undoubtedly have to give.
Wagner further said that the resources of his council have been stretched to the limit with the state of emergency, and the dire situation facing many families and communities across the city. He said his council has been doing its part to alleviate some of the hardships.
Mayor Wagner said that the monetary value of the relief package that his council has implemented for businesses and residents over the next three months easily surpasses $2 million.
”We have deferred property taxes to July, and in addition have approved a 15% discount, which when calculated over a potential tax roll of $10.9 million results in the council relinquishing almost $1.6 million in property tax revenues. Additionally, we have written-off three months rental revenues for 78 vendors at the market, parks, and the new city hall, which amounts to $42,000 monthly. For three months this works out to $126,000 and when combined with property taxes, relief is close to $1.7 million,” he said.
According to Wagner, garbage pick-up and disposal has also gone essentially uninterrupted throughout this period, and that is another $400,000 that they have sustained despite significantly reduced revenue flows. Wagner was asked to respond to criticism that his council has not done anything to help residents in the city.
Mayor Wagner added, “We have done our share in the area of pantry and financial assistance to those less fortunate city residents; not because you don’t see us posing with recipients, doesn’t mean we are not assisting. We took the business decision to not publicize, as the other side have been doing. Our people are traversing unfamiliar terrain; there is so much uncertainty; as leaders we need not add to that uncertainty.”
Mayor of the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena, Earl Trapp, told us that there was supposed to have been a virtual meeting yesterday with someone from the Ministry of Local Government, but he is not sure if the meeting took place because he has not received any feedback from his colleagues.
We asked Trapp to comment on the fact that it is appearing that the government will not render any assistance to municipalities.
“I know it’s a new challenge and we will have to think outside of the box, all of us,” Trapp offered.
Trapp told us that he has put forward a proposal for assistance, but so far he has not gotten a reply to his proposal.
“I don’t know if anything was discussed at the meeting yesterday, so in all fairness, I can’t say what happened to my proposal, but I was the first one to put forward a proposal,” Trapp said.
Trapp added, “When we did the math, it came out to around $150,000 to $175,000 per month to run the town council.”
That figure is being lenient, Trapp went on to explain, in light of the 150 persons who are employed by his town council. “It’s closer to $200,000,” Trapp pointed out.
Trapp said that during the sate of emergency, his town council has been able to hold out and deal with the sanitation.
“We should be able to hold out up to next month, but after that we will need a grant or something from government, because we are not going to be able to collect any revenues because of the crisis that people are going through,” Trapp pointed out.
Trapp said that the council has had to reduce their salaries by 25 percent.
“The sanitation is doing the collection of the household garbage during this time”, Trapp said.
“We will definitely have to get some financial assistance from central government, otherwise we will have to lay off people,” Trapp said.
Orange Walk Town mayor, Kevin Bernard, echoed the same sentiments as the mayor of the Twin Towns. Mayor Bernard told us that they will have to lay off some people, if they don’t get the support from central government.
Bernard said that Orange Walk Town submitted its proposal a long time ago, but it’s frustrating because they have not heard anything back from government.
“We have been sending out messages in our chat group and in emails, but the emails are basically telling us that we are on our own, and this is a disrespect; we are not satisfied with the response we have been getting,” Bernard said.
The Orange Walk Town mayor went on to explain, “We are not telling the government to give us money, but at least give us an overdraft facility.” In the case of Orange Walk, they are asking for an overdraft facility of $100,000, Bernard said.
Bernard explained that government would have to give the overdraft, because municipal bodies don’t own the type of real estate that the bank could hold onto as collateral.
“That is one form of leverage we can have, but there has been no response coming from the Office of the Prime Minister,” he said.
Bernard said, “I cannot see our employees losing their jobs at this time. We are the frontline of government.”
We asked Mayor Bernard how much per week the shutdown is costing his town.
Citing an example from yesterday, Bernard said that his town council only collected about 10 percent of traffic revenue.
Bernard said that his council has about 106 employees.
When asked how his town will go forward in the absence of assistance from the central government, Bernard replied, “I don’t even want to think about that right now, because the only thing that we will have to do is to lay off employees and that is a last resort.”
“As the Mayor, I don’t want to do that. The central government must come in and help us, even if it is going to start with that overdraft facility,” Bernard said.
Bernard rationalized that “even if we open back fully, that does not mean that people will come in to pay their taxes, so we are offering them incentives to do that.”
Bernard said that the town council is offering up to a 25 percent discount for persons who are in arrears and come forward to pay their taxes. For those who are not in arrears, they will get a 40 percent discount on their taxes.
“Every year between the month of June to September, people are focused on their education, books and uniforms for their children, so that is a very dry period for us…. We are appealing to the government to please come in and assist us; we cannot afford to have our employees lose their jobs,” Bernard said.
Bernard said that Orange Walk pays around $15,000 per week in salaries and, with the inclusion of those employees who get paid every two weeks, that adds up to around $20,000 every two weeks. “Then, at the end of the month we have the managers and councilors who are paid,” he said.
“We are facing some serious challenges,” Bernard said, “If we are to pay our workers 50 percent, government would have to assist us with at least $90,000. Government has been too laid back; the financial gap that all municipalities will face the government would have to come in and assist us,” he said.
Feature photo: (L-R) Mayor Bernard Wagner, Mayor Earl Trapp and Mayor Kevin Bernard