UP faction leader Meyers tips his hat to finance minister

POSTED: 03/1/16 2:26 PM

Many questions, but satisfaction with solution for government building

St. Maarten News – Members of Parliament bickered about the sale of the government administration building on Pond Island yesterday in a public meeting, where especially the opposition UP posed a lot of questions. The bickering was about the usefulness of these questions, as many answers are to be found in the draft budget. However, UP faction leader Franklin Meyers, after establishing his right to ask questions, made a gracious statement: “I tip my hat to the Minister of Finance for finding a solution. Kudos to the Minister of Finance. We don’t get what we want, we get what we negotiate.”

That took some air out of the tensed atmosphere coalition members created after UP-MP Theo Heyliger had opened the floor with a truckload of questions. Some of the answers are indeed to be found in the draft budget.

Finance Minister Richard Gibson gave a brief explanation about the sale of the building to social insurance agency SZV. “I came up with a formula that cannot be construed as a loan,” he said. “The debts we cover with this transactions are from premiums that have been withheld from the salaries of civil servants that were not paid to SZV and pension fund APS. The Cft does not consider our solution a loan.”

The questions from MP Heyliger felt at some level like the campaign for the September elections has started. “The shot gun approach is that the building must be open before the elections,” he remarked at a certain moment.

Heyliger wondered whether the government needs the parliament’s approval for the deal. He also wanted to know how many buildings the government is renting (the overview of these buildings is part of the draft 2016 budget), how much rent the government pays for these buildings and what the rental terms are.

“How much more rental space does the government still require after moving into the new building?” Heyliger asked. He referred to the BTP building on Cannegieter Street “where twelve people occupy six floors” and noted that the Tourist Bureau is planning to construct a new building.

Heyliger furthermore asked historical data about the deal with developer RGM and about “the rationale behind first buying the building and then selling it again.”

Other questions concern the change from APS to SZV as the buying party and the financial study SZV did before it decided to purchase. “Before Aps did not want to talk about this unless the return on investment was 7 percent,” Heyliger said. “Is this not risky for SZV, and what are their reserves?”

Heyliger also asked why only SZV and APS are involved in the transaction and why the risk has not been spread by involving local banks, insurance companies and even individual citizens.

Dr. Lloyd Richardson (UP) thought it “strange” that a transaction involving “one of the largest assets of the country” could go on without deliberation in parliament. “What were the criteria for selecting this particular asset?” he asked.

Independent MP Cornelius de Weever went down memory lane with questions about which government started the project (that was the DP), who the responsible commissioner and ministers had been and what the total costs so far is. De Weever also wanted to know what the correct process is for selling government assets.

Independent MP Leona Marlin-Romeo wanted more details about the “innovative formula” Minister Gibson had found for putting the deal together in such a way that it has the approval of financial supervisor Cft.

MP Frans Richardson (USp) wondered why the meeting was called at all. “We don’t need history,” he said with a sneer to MP De Weever, “We need solutions. “The Cft gave us ideas about balancing the budget and stopping the bleeding at SZV and APS. Today a solution is found. I’m not saying I was not a part of the mess we have created, but we all approved previous budgets. This government is fixing some of the ills of the past.”

MP Rodolphe Samuel (National Alliance) came with sharp criticism at the address of MP Heyliger – without ever mentioning his name, but the references to “the first speaker” and the MP who “usually wins the most votes” were clear enough. Samuel wondered why Heyliger posed questions to which he could have found the answers in the draft 2016 budget.

Independent MP Maurice Lake also wondered about the purpose of then meeting. “All the people want to know is that this minister, SZV and Aps got the job done,” he said. “None of us should be talking here about this government and that government.”

UP faction leader Franklin Meyers gave the minister his jacket, so to speak with a straightforward compliment. But Meyers also retained his right to ask questions. “It is our job to question decisions made by the government,” he pointed out.

Meyers wanted to know the government’s ability to pay its creditors. He also informed about the condition of the government administration building.

The MP pointed out that the Cft has also advised the government to sell the airport and the harbor. “Are you going to follow through on that too?” he asked.

Meyers furthermore wanted to know how much money SZV and Aps actually have (“We also need a new parliament building,” he noted), which government approved the purchase of the BTP-building and who approved the purchase by the harbor of a piece of land from Bobby’s Marina.

The parliamentarians will have to wait some time for their answers, because Minister Gibson indicated that he would need at least a week to get all information together. Since the handling of the budget is on the agenda for next week, parliament’s President Sarah Wescot-Williams indicated that the follow up meeting will at best take place in the week after the budget meetings.

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