The Bottom, Saba- Commissioner Zagers reflects on ‘the good’ and the ‘not so good’. Saba has benefited enormously from the direct relationship with the Netherlands, and there have been many improvements since Saba became a public entity on October 10, 2010. However, there are a number of issues that require urgent attention from The Hague, stated Saba Commissioner Bruce Zagers in a letter that he sent to the Second Chamber and State Secretary Raymond Knops on Friday, October 9.
In his eight-page letter to the Second Chamber’s Permanent Committee for Kingdom Relations and the State of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations, Zagers, who has been commissioner since 2007, reflected on 10 years after 10-10-10 and drew up a summary of things that have gone good and things that have not gone so good, all of which have a direct effect on a small island like Saba.
“Over the years we have witnessed the commitment from the Netherlands to realize tangible results. This has especially been the case during the tenure of State Secretary Knops, who has embraced being the coordinating focal point. As the smallest of the islands, Saba used to get the smallest financial contributions from the Netherlands Antilles Government. Under the Antillean construction there were basically no opportunities for growth, and at times it was so bad that we were forced to make decisions to either fly out a patient for medical treatment or pay civil servant salaries.”
According to Zagers, the current public entity constructions has worked in many areas: politicians and ministries feel responsible for achieving results, there is direct contact, and working together has resulted in many positive developments. “We have transitioned from an era where government could barely keep the doors of the hospital and the schools open because there was no money or support, to an era where we have one of the better health care systems in the region and a school system where we see positive improvements. Saba’s development after 10-10-10 shows that being a being a special municipality was the right decision for Saba.”
After the 2017 hurricanes, Saba received funding to build back and to make the island more resilient, and none of the projects would have been realized under the realm of the Netherlands Antilles, stated Zagers, who mentioned the construction of a new harbor in the coming years as the island’s single biggest project.
Great efforts have been made to address poverty, with the input of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (SZW) and the Ministry of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations (BZK). During the COVID-19 crisis, Saba has also seen the benefit of the special relationship with the Netherlands. With Dutch financial support, many jobs have been saved and so far, no businesses have closed their doors. But this may become the case if the situation doesn’t soon normalize.
The quality of the Saba Government has improved with Dutch assistance, as has Saba’s financial management. Many infrastructural projects have been realized, such as a new runway and a refurbished, expanded airport terminal, two new solar parks, a water pipeline, a bottling plant which will soon be completed, investments in waste management, investments in the island infrastructure and a new electric power plant. There are also the investments in agriculture, tourism and nature.
Lack of understanding
The vast improvements don’t mean that everything is perfect. “There continues to be a lack of understanding for the individual problems of the Caribbean Netherlands islands and there seems to be a lack of political willingness to differentiate between Saba, St. Eustatius and Bonaire.” Zagers noted that there was no such thing as a BES entity, and that each island has a separate relationship with the Netherlands. Also, something that works for Saba, might not work for Statia. And a policy or law drafted with the Bonaire situation in mind will most likely not work for Saba. The “one size does not fit all” theory also applies to the division of tasks. “If Saba has proven to be capable of assuming more responsibilities, this should not be complicated because of the other two islands. State Secretary Knops started with a more-for-more philosophy, and there have been some results of that approach, but there is room for more differentiation, more tailor-made agreements.”
The lack of structural funding remains a major issue for the Saba Government, and, for the first time, Saba closed off the fiscal year 2019 with a US $621,000 deficit. While there is an abundance of incidental projects, 80 plus projects last year, these incidental funds are also used to finance structural tasks. Incidental projects often result in structural operating and maintenance costs which don’t reflect in the free allowance. This free allowance has not only remained unchanged since 2012, it also has been structurally too low, especially with the added responsibilities for the Public Entity. “Throughout the years, we have been given numerous reasons why the allowance cannot be increased. Most recently the reason given is that it cannot be increased for Saba without doing something for Bonaire and Statia.”
Saba lacks the ability to generate more own income, unlike Statia which has the oil terminal, and Bonaire which has tourism. Saba has a medical school, but since the 2017 hurricanes, the number of students has gone down drastically, and since COVID-19, the student body is miniscule. Things are very hard economically for both the Saba people and the entrepreneurs, and the Public Entity is in no position to generate additional funds to offset the lack of structural funding.
The National Government Department for the Caribbean Netherlands (RCN) is considered a layer which is expensive and produces results which are neither tangible nor visible, stated Zagers. “We often speak about efficiency and the way money is being spent, and the RCN offers a bad example for both.” In addition, Saba sees the function of the Kingdom Representative as a layer that creates a middle-man doesn’t fit in an efficient system.
As for the tackling of poverty, Zagers stated that even though significant progress had been made, many of Saba’s vulnerable groups were still living in conditions that are far from desirable. In his letter, the Commissioner gave a number of examples of taxes that are too high and too taxing on the people and the businesses and the import procedures that are too bureaucratic and cumbersome. “It bewilders me that on a five square mile island, with less than 2,000 people, we are forced to comply with such complex international systems for imports.”
During the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, businesses, especially in the hospitality sector, are struggling to keep their doors open. The financial support that they have received, mostly goes back to paying employer premiums for their staff, and even though 80% of the employee wages are covered by the support package, 100% of the premiums must still be paid by the employer. Zagers said the situation would get worse when real estate tax was levied on these same properties that are not generating any income. And, while banks have been lenient with mortgage payments, it will only be a matter of time when monthly payments will have to resume. The Tax Department is no longer lenient. “The structure and implementation of the support packages have not necessarily taken the small scale of the businesses on Saba into consideration. Our regular size population has plummeted because almost all medical students left and very few have returned. We have no tourism. The one size fits all model with the package unfairly addresses the Saba reality,” he stated.
Despite the challenges and shortcomings that he pointed out, Zagers remained positive. “There is no denying that the good outweighs the bad. The commitment and the growth that we have experienced during the last 10 years is truly remarkable. Together we have been able to accomplish great things for our people and our island. These accomplishments are only possible because of the positive results of the transition, the good working relationship, trust and the commitment from both parties to strive for higher standards.
However, the ‘not so good’ or the ‘petty’ issues often overshadow the positive developments for many of our people. I hope that now after 10 years collectively we can have an honest reflection on all of the results of the transition and the impact it has on our local government, our people and our island.”