SINT MAARTEN (PHILIPSBURG) – The audit conducted by the General Audit Chamber on the effectiveness of government office housing policy should have presented a clear picture of significant financial savings for government. Instead, Independent Member of Parliament (MP) Christophe Emmanuel said, “there is no policy and government literally told the Audit Chamber that it has little to no information about what it pays in rent.”
He said the fact that the Audit Chamber did not receive most of the information it requested from the Ministry of General Affairs and the Ministry of Finance shows once again that government does not have the simplest of financial matters in order and the Minister of Finance has failed at his job. He said it is a legal requirement to provide information to the Audit Chamber when it asks. Government, the MP said, admitted to the Audit Chamber that the relevant information is not available.
“So we are renting buildings all over St. Maarten, and can’t produce information about rental costs. How then, is this even regulated and mentioned in the budget? By guessing?” The Audit Chamber even concluded that the lack of information from the Ministry of General Affairs and Ministry of Finance greatly influenced their audit,” the MP said.
“It makes you wonder how exactly does government financially plan if it cannot even produce a real picture of expenditures and wastage? Government has instituted what it called cost-saving measures, including cuts to civil servant benefits and income, but does not know if it could have saved thousands if not millions by taking certain actions within government itself. Rent of private owned properties is one such area,” the MP said.
He pointed out that the rent for the Vineyard Building alone is Naf 462,000 per month, or roughly Naf 5.5 million per year. Due to lack of information from government to the Audit Chamber, the total amount the government pays in rent is not known. “And nobody questions this? Or at least tried to re-negotiate these rental amounts? In the meantime, we have government owned buildings sitting damaged and empty with apparently no funds for repairs,” the MP said.
“If we utilize many of our government facilities better (such as the BTP Building) and expand on some, we would have the finances to tackle the building of the former police academy, the Soremar Building in Cole Bay, the library ect. But once again we don’t know what or if government is doing anything other than cutting benefits of personnel, while still hiring more,” MP Emmanuel said.
He said it is alarming that the Finance Minister at the end of the day, could not produce figures to the Audit Chamber. “This also means he could not produce information on who owns the buildings government rents. He could not say if the buildings are owned by civil servants and if this is allowed. He could not say if the rent of the Vineyard Building and the building that currently houses the Prosecutor’s Office, goes to the same individual. The Audit Chamber basically laid bare that the Finance Minister has no clue what he is doing since there is no policy from which he is working. It is no wonder the Dutch took us for a ride with conditions if this Finance Minister handled negotiations,” the MP said.
MP Emmanuel said that a lack of an office policy means that government cannot and does not control the cost and the efficiency of any accommodation it rents or wants to rent. Moreover, the audit makes it seems like the rental of properties is more of an ad hoc exercise than a planned and strategic necessity. There is also no evaluation on space usage in the new Government Building or any other building to determine where savings can be realized.
“Imagine, government could not even verify the correct rent for the Audit Chamber when asked. We have to get to a point where our decisions are made on sound information. But instead we have a Minister of Finance who produces a kindergarten like one-page summary of the country’s liquidity situation when asked by Parliament. For some reason this government believes in hiding figures from the public, from Parliament, from the Dutch and do not take needed action based on factual information,” the MP said.