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No Dutch commitment to raise BES-islands’ free allowance

FRIDAY, 16 MARCH 2012

THE HAGUE–The Reference Framework report (referentiekader rapport) might have established that the free allowance (vrije uitkering) for Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba is too low, but The Hague cannot commit as yet to a possible increase.

If the sole purpose of the trip of the delegations from Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba to The Netherlands this week had been to secure an increase of the said free allowance, they will be returning to their islands empty-handed, at least for now.

Dutch Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Liesbeth Spies was unable to promise the islands an increase in the free allowance during her meeting with the delegations on Thursday. That has to do with the draconian budget cuts that the Dutch Government will have to implement in the near future.

The islands’ Executive Councils have been trying for over a year to convince the Dutch Ministry of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations BZK that the yearly contribution of US $34.7 million, the so-called free allowance, from the Dutch Government is structurally insufficient to cover their operational cost and to comply with their tasks.

Research carried out on the order of BZK, the so-called Reference Framework, has established that the islands indeed did not receive enough money. According to that report, the Dutch ‘public entities’ Bonaire, Saba, St. Eustatius are lacking US $7 to 27 million to carry out their tasks in an appropriate way.

In the most sober scenario, the free allowance should be US $42.9 million in total and in the optimal scenario US $61.1 million. These amounts don’t include the cost of eliminating the backlog in maintenance of infrastructure, buildings and roads.

The Reference Framework gives an upper limit and a lower limit for the free allowance that each island needs. For St. Eustatius the upper limit is US $12.5 million and the lower limit US $9.3 million. St. Eustatius currently receives nearly US $8 million. For Saba the upper limit is US $10.4 million and the lower limit US $8.1 million. Saba now receives about US $7 million. The upper limit for Bonaire is US $38.1 and the lower limit US $25.4 million.

Minister Spies admitted that the current free allowance was insufficient and lauded the fact that there now was a Reference Framework to serve as an indication. “Until now we had to rely on feelings, sentiments and estimations. Now it is a fact: the free allowance is too low,” she said at a press briefing following the meeting with the delegations.

The Dutch Council of Ministers will now have to decide if the free allowance will be increased and if so, by how much, explained Spies. She referred to the situation of the new cost-cutting round of 16 billion euros that will come on top of the earlier decision to trim the budget by 18 billion euros. “It is a tough combination of circumstances which makes it more complicated,” she said.

Commissioners Burney Elhage of Bonaire, Koos Sneek of St. Eustatius and Chris Johnson of Saba said they understood the financial situation of The Netherlands, but at the press briefing they showed disappointment about the Dutch frugal attitude.

“The Netherlands is facing tough financial times and we were reminded of that at every single meeting that we had here this week,” said Johnson. “Everywhere we heard the same story of budget cuts and that we had our own responsibilities. We are not walking away from those responsibilities but we should have sufficient means to address them,” said Sneek.

“The ministries asked for understanding from our side, but we assume that The Netherlands will also show comprehension for the backlogs that our people face,” said Elhage, who added that some ministries still didn’t see the islands as “part of the family.” “We expect the Dutch cabinet will make clear that it will take responsibility not to let the islands down,” he said.

Johnson said that The Hague should not only look at the height of the free allowance, but also at the way the money is spent, for example through the so-called BES Fund from which expensive consultants and trips of Dutch civil servants are paid. “We have to talk about the complete picture,” said Johnson, pointing out that the islands were 40 to 50 years behind in investments and the level of provisions compared to The Netherlands.

Spies said that the Dutch cabinet would take a decision shortly on the free allowance and the availability of additional funding to tackle the backlog in maintenance to the infrastructure. The island governments will be consulted before a final decision is taken.

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