TOBAGO stakeholders are hoping that the THA, in Monday’s national budget, will receive a significant allocation to carry out its affairs during the next fiscal year.
Finance Minister Colm Imbert is expected to deliver the presentation from 1.30 pm at the Red House, in Port of Spain.
Last year, Tobago received an allocation of $2.357 billion, which represented 4.5 per cent of the national budget.
But in his presentation of the Tobago budget in June, Chief Secretary Farley Augustine requested $3.97 billion from central government to manage the island’s affairs for fiscal 2022-2023.
He said, then, that the sum was predicated on an anticipated national budget of $54.7 billion.
Augustine said he hoped the figure will also reflect 6.9 per cent of the national budget, in keeping with the upper end of the Dispute Resolution Committee’s recommendation.
Of the $3.97 billion, Augustine said $3.07 billion will be for recurrent expenditure and $900 million for development expenditure.
On September 14, Augustine and a THA team had a meeting with Imbert and ministry officials in Port of Spain.
Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce president Diane Hadad supports calls for an increased budget allocation for the island.
She believes significant sums are required to develop Tobago in a particular way.
“The Tobago House of Assembly must be allowed to develop the island by putting funds in a particular direction for development,” she told Sunday Newsday.
In tandem with this, Hadad is hoping to see measures to stimulate the economy, which she believes is still reeling from the effects of the covid19 pandemic over the past two years.
“We have seen that as time goes on after the struggles of a fallout in tourism and then a pandemic for two years that the financial sector has done nothing special and there has been nothing from our Central Bank to induce or inject something that stimulates the economy and, therefore, the Ministry of Finance has a serious responsibility there as we continuously see foreclosure notices and judgements going to court for business models that have not been able to stand up to the two years of the pandemic shutdown.”
She is also anticipating an announcement of concessions for citizens, many of whom have experienced reduced earning capacity or lost their jobs during the pandemic.
Hadad said, “There needs to be some special concessions looking at oil and gas and therefore the fuel prices because we seem to feel that we just need to put more pressure and punitive measures unto the citizens of the country. I believe the government needs to use the budget to create some measure of ease and not continuously put hardship on the citizens because a number of people lost their jobs.”
Barring this, she believes a number of social initiatives, some of which are already in place, such as the schools feeding programme, could be run more efficiently.
“Funding must be allocated and it must start in a timely manner.”
Measures to ensure the free flow of passengers both on the sea and airbridge should also form part of the budget, she believes.
Hadad also said there needs to be an emphasis on entrepreneurship and skills training, especially among young people.
“So we need to look at if there needs to be more vocational work being done so that we can actually develop people differently and get a more holistic approach to our people.”
This, she said, will assist in boosting the skills of individuals across several sectors.
Hadad is also hoping to see the Land Licence Act repealed.
“We have been asking for that to be repealed for the longest while.”
Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association vice-president Carol-Ann Birchwood-James also wants the island to receive a bigger chunk of the budget.
“Usually when they give us money, we only get about $300 million to do any kind of development. That is not enough,” she said.
“This island is surrounded by water and there are so many development projects that we need to do. So I think that we should have more money on our development because most of the money that we get is for recurring costs.”
Like Hadad, Birchwood-James said attention must also be paid to air and sea transport, particularly during holiday periods like July-August vacation and Christmas or special events such as the upcoming Tobago Carnival.
“That is when we really get pressure on the airlift. So we need to do something substantial there because we cannot ignore the fact that there are problems on the airbridge. This is something that we have to concentrate on because Tobago is a tourism island.”
She said a portion of the hotel tax that hoteliers and guest house operators pay to government could be used to assist with marketing for the island’s tourism sector.
“While hotels and guesthouses pay it, airbnb, villas, some of the small establishments, they don’t pay because by law, if you have less that six rooms you don’t pay. But the amount of money that goes into that hotel tax, many millions of dollars to the government, we are saying you can use ten per cent of that hotel tax and give us for marketing.”
Tobago Business Chamber chairman Martin George is hoping that the government expands the Cepep and URP programmes to create what he called dedicated agro-industry sections which can serve as organised structured government farms.
“We’d like to see this as part of an agrarian awakening for TT. So let’s create a Cepep agro division and a URP agri-sector by utilising our fertile lands and our rich soil to harness the talents of our people. Let’s use the science, the technology to create super-productive farms throughout TT.”
George said the workers’ wages will have to be increased in a manner linked to increased productivity and agricultural output.
He said the chamber would also like to see Tobago “weaned off of the financial umbilical chord by which it is tied to central government.
“This will require a medium to long term plan but we need to make a start.”
George reiterated the chamber’s call for the immediate and unconditional repeal of the foreign investment act and the creation of a VAT-free zone in Tobago.
Of the latter, he said, “This will lead to a massive influx of foreign exchange and investment and business in Tobago. Tobago will become the retirement capital of the Caribbean in much the same way Florida is the retirement state of the USA.”
Newly-elected PRO of the Tobago Agricultural Society Hollis Alexander said the organisation would like to see a greater focus on youth in agriculture.
He said grant funding is currently available for young people in Trinidad to the tune of $100,000.
“We would like a separate one for Tobago,” Alexander told Sunday Newsday.
He said the society also wants to see a better land distribution policy for “serious” farmers.
“I think the access to land is a bit difficult for many who might be interested especially the young ones. I think there should be a larger amount of land space made available for young people to do farming.”
Alexander said money should also be allocated for developing the technology within the sector in areas such as hydronics and aquaponics.
The organisation, he said, would also like to see more funding for access roads and further agricultural land development.
Alexander said research grants for pest and disease eradication to produce higher-yielding crop varieties such as cassava, potato and other farmers may choose to invest will also be welcomed.
He said funding is also needed to establish a proper data base within the sector.
Agriculture has traditionally received one of the lowest allocations in national budgets.
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