Pantophlet: Licenses being used to get residence permits

POSTED: 04/12/13 11:20 AM

St. Maarten – An abuse of the business license procedure by foreign nationals has prompted Economic Affairs Minister Romeo Pantophlet to place more than two dozen requests on hold as the government seeks a way to block the practice. Pantophlet told Parliament during yesterday’s fourth day of deliberations on the Draft 2013 Budget at the Central Committee, that the matter is engaging the attention of the Council of Ministers.

He explained that because the Ministry of Justice’s policy is that once a foreign national obtains a director’s license they can automatically receive temporary residence on the island, the process is being taken advantage of.  The minister said that he approximately 32 applications pending on his desk that will not be signed anytime soon.

“People have been using that as a conduit to obtain residence,” he said.

Pantophlet brought the matter to the Council of Ministers and was advised to meet with Justice Minister Roland Duncan to craft a strategy to counteract the practice.

“I had a meeting with the minister of justice. We are coming up with a proposal with the approval of the Council of Ministers to deal with that,” the Minister said.

He admitted that the practice is not new to St. Maarten. During the days of Franklyn Richards as Lt. Governor, sore abuses were also being perpetuated because of a loophole in the law.

“They set up sole proprietorships and use that an avenue to obtain residence permits,” the minister added.

And while he tries to crack down on foreign nationals he believes take advantage of the system, the minister said that he is also concerned about initiating measures for a friendlier foreign investor climate.

One such measure is that all business licenses are now being issued in English and will be processed much faster, the minister said.

Foreign investors do not understand a word of Dutch and are “fuddled” trying to understand their own licenses, the minister said.

Two additional staff members will also be hired soon to complement human resources at that Licensing Department to strengthen its efficiency.

Review of Business License Ordinance

The Ministry of Economic Affairs is currently reviewing the business license ordinance and will move to enforce stipulations which require all economic activities to be covered under a business license, including street vendors and taxi drivers, the minister said.

Marlin had taken aim at car rental companies that have many of their cars on French number plates.

“We have to change the law so that when you obtain a license for a car rental you also have to buy the plates for the number of cars you have,” he said.

The minister admitted that he is handicapped now since the current legislation does not allow for Marlin’s suggestion. It only allows for the government to take away a rental car license that has not been operational for more than six months.

In terms of policy making or amendment suggestions, Pantophlet indicated that he would want to see a sign placed at the front of all car rentals stating that: Only cars with the Dutch number plate can be rented out.

“We are exploring all options but it is not as easy as it looks, the minister said.

Business License Processing

Based on concerns raised by several MPs on the prolonged period it takes for business license applications to be processed, the minister said that the process is moving much faster than it was, one year ago.

He provided statistics on the pending license requests up to March 31. When he took office in May 2012, 186 business and director branch licenses were pending. Currently, there are 78 licenses still to be processed. In the areas of amendments and cancellations, operational licenses and vending licenses, figures in 2012 stood at 72, 45 and 27 respectively. Up March month end, there were only 20, 8 and 5 pending in three groups.

For Carnival 2012, 349 licenses were requested as opposed to 212 this year.

In total 1142 business license requests were submitted between May 29, 2012 and March 31, 2013.

9165 director and branch licenses are registered at Economic Affairs and for 2012, the government was able to earn 9,794,257 guilders in fee payments.

“We have some backlogs and we hired temps that did a marvelous job to reduce backlog,” the minister stated.

He added that the lack of adequate staffing, serious long term medical leave and the lack of pertinent information on some applications all contributed to the backlog.

Minister Pantophlet told Parliament that he plans to bring in an independent specialist to streamline the Inspection and Licenses Department. He also wants to implement an automated system that could see some licenses being applied for and granted within a day. However more complex licenses will take more time, the minister said.

The focus is to fill critical vacancies at the Ministry and there are sufficient budgetary allocations to cover these vacancies the minister said.

Opening Hours Extension

Requests for opening hour’s extension have increased, the minister said, citing that this may be in relation to joint controls that are taking place. 19 applications were received last year and for the first quarter of 2013, the amount was 34.

The fee for extended opening hours is 150 guilders and while no businesses were closed down during the joint controls last week, the minister said that 48 new requests came in after the inspection controls.

“Many complaints were received that the controls were targeting certain local groups,” the minister said, adding that the issue now has his attention.

Also part of his plan to revise the business license ordinance is to liberalize opening hours across the board until 11:00 pm, the Minister said. This would revitalize night life and encourage more economic activity in Philipsburg, he has reasoned.

He said that he is currently in discussions with the Harbor to see that weekly street fairs, similar those Grand Case, are held through Front Street, Back Street and the Boardwalk, to stimulate more interest in Philipsburg.



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