Our brothers and sisters in the Bahamas have just come through a storm the likes of which few have ever experienced. For almost two days a Category 5 hurricane hammered some sections of that country, and the devastation is enormous. Preliminary reports are that there has been loss of life, and on the Abaco and Grand Bahama Islands more than 50% of the houses have been totally destroyed.
These hurricanes are getting worse. In 1998, just over 20 years ago, Hurricane Mitch battered the island of Guanaja (also called Bonnaca) in Honduras for nearly two days. The US has been hard hit the past few years, and in 2017 Hurricane Irma leveled Barbuda, and Hurricane Maria brutalized Dominica and Puerto Rico.
Our prayers are with the people of Bahamas at this time, and we call on whoever can make a financial contribution to be generous with their support.
GOB’s scramble for cash leads to another land tax amnesty
We are living in particularly hard times in Belize. If someone from the outside looked at the employment figures presented by the Statistical Institute of Belize (SIB), they’d think that things were great in our country. The SIB’s Labor Force Survey of April 2019 showed an unemployment rate of 7.6%, and the department says that is “the lowest rate ever recorded.” If outsiders looked at tourist arrivals, and hotel receipts, they’d see another positive story, because every quarter the SIB reports that things in that sector are growing. We know, There is employment, but the jobs don’t pay enough to make ends meet. The agriculture sector is on the ropes, with declining exports of citrus products and declining earnings for sugarcane farmers. Drought-like conditions have other sectors of agriculture reeling. The marine sector is flat, dragged down by the shrimp industry, which hasn’t seen profits in years.
In the last quarter the report from the construction industry, one of the prime indicators of the health, the hope, in a country, was dismal. Experts point out that when there is economic growth people are encouraged to invest in building houses. The SIB reports show that construction (measured by loans taken) has been down in 3 of the last 4 quarters – minus 4.7% July-Sept 2018 (compared to same period 2017), plus 4.2% Oct-Dec 2018 (compared to same period 2017), minus 2.9% Jan-Mar 2019 (compared to same period 2018), and minus 21.9% Apr-Jun 2019 (compared to same period 2018).
Things are bad, but there is no escape from paying utility bills, mortgages and rent, and for fuel, groceries, and other goods. If you don’t pay the utility bills you get “cut out”, if you don’t pay the rent you get put out, and if you don’t pay for the other goods, you go without. Most Belizeans, after navigating through the aforementioned payments, which must be made weekly or monthly, are left flat broke. We have still to pay the yearly tax on our properties.
Municipal governments, particularly those in Belize City and Belmopan, have instituted now yearly programs to reward citizens who pay their taxes on time. The Belize City Council, for example, gives all citizens who pay up on time a 10% discount on their property taxes, and senior citizens are offered a 25% discount.
The national government also offers some relief to landowners, but not that often. The present government has offered landowners at least two such breaks, called amnesty, in the last ten years. At the last sitting of the House of Representatives, in mid-August, Prime Minister Barrow did the second reading of a bill that called for another amnesty on land taxes, for six months.
The Minister of Natural Resources, Hon. Hugo Patt, explained that the government was waiving the interest that was owed, and there would be a reduction of 25% on the principal for all those who were in arrears. The Prime Minister, at the latest sitting of the House, said that landowners owed the government about $90 million.
The Deputy Leader of the People’s United Party (PUP), Lake I representative Hon. Cordel Hyde, who acted as the Leader of the Opposition PUP at the last sitting of the House, commented that this amnesty was mostly about satisfying the country’s biggest landowners. Hyde said: “This bill here has some benefits for small people, but far more benefits for big people…”
He went on to note, “At the last meeting when the Prime Minister first tabled this bill, he said that there was some ninety million dollars outstanding in taxes, land taxes. Of that ninety million, thirty big land owners owe half of that amount. Thirty big land owners owe forty-four million dollars. Thirty big land owners own a combined five hundred thousand acres of land … Some of these big land owners own eighty thousand acres, seventy-six thousand acres, thirty thousand acres, and then we have a situation where ordinary persons in this country, in Belize City, can’t get a fifty [feet] by seventy-five [feet] lot. It’s a very sweet deal because all they [these big landowners] do is wait for the land tax amnesty, and then they get a waiver on the interest, twenty-five percent break on the principal.” (Quote taken from the Amandala.)
The ruling United Democratic Party’s (UDP) newspaper, The Guardian, ignored the concern about who’s going to benefit most from the amnesty. The Guardian, in its headline article last week, declared that 78,202 land owners would get eased by the amnesty. (It may be The Guardian meant 78,202 land parcels, not land owners.)
Mr. Kerry Belisle, the CEO at the Ministry of Natural Resources, told The Guardian that the amnesty will allow the government to collect taxes that could become statute-barred after 12 years. Belisle told The Guardian that “as debts become older, they are harder and harder to collect.”
Speaking on that same matter, Attorney General and Senator, Hon. Michael Peyrefitte, told the Senate on August 30: “We can sue for the taxes owed. How long you think it would take? You go to court. You win a judgment. You try and collect the money. The persons appeal … It can take you from now to thy kingdom come to actually get paid. So what you do is that you make a deal with the people for a shortened period of time.” (Quote taken from News5.)
Only the gullible believe that large land owners can tie up the government in court until “thy kingdom come.” Far closer to the truth is that the government is desperate to collect some of what it is owed as quickly as possible, for foremost on the government’s mind at this time is that the country’s coffers are bare, and we are approaching an election year.
Indeed, in this very down economy it is not a bad thing for the government to give some relief to struggling farmers and small landowners, but it is not necessary to give relief to large landowners. It is A-B-C that if you hold large acreages and you are not paying your taxes, you should give up some of your land.
Things are bad in the country, but the Government of Belize shows no inclination to put a halt to the corruption that is sapping the country’s energy. Despite much clamoring from the people, there is still no Contractor General, a position that must be filled if we are to ensure that contracts are awarded based on merit, not friendship/cronyism. The Public Accounts Committee hasn’t held a meaningful meeting in years because the government, despite the failures of this body, insists that it must be configured with the government side in the majority.
Senator Mark Lizarraga hit the nail on the head when he described the latest land amnesty as political expediency. It is a pity that political expediency is dictating land policy in our country, but that is what it is. The government is desperate for cash, and the amnesty is the vehicle it is using to get it.