THE BOTTOM – Poverty alleviation, high cost of living, poor banking, double taxation, affordable housing and the need to increase the free allowance were some of the main topics the Island Council addressed during a meeting with the Dutch State Secretary for Kingdom Relations and Digitization. Alexandra van Huffelen on Tuesday, February 22.
“We want to improve the quality of life for everyone on the island. If that means a higher minimum wage, lower internet and electricity costs, we are ultimately trying to make life a bit more comfortable for everyone,” Councilman Hemmie van Xanten said.
“Poverty is a big problem here. People live paycheck to paycheck. What would help a lot of people is a rent subsidy which so far has not happened on any of the islands. The same goes for the mortgage guarantee. It was introduced for Bonaire, but not for Saba and Saint-Eustache. We also have people here who want to own their own homes. I would especially like to help young people to have their own house. For them, it is now almost impossible,” Councilman Eviton Heyliger said.
Councilman Carl Buncamper reached out to banking. “As an island council, we see a lot of problems with the only bank in Saba, which does not provide the services people deserve. Last month, pensioners received their pension 10 days late. In a modern society, we shouldn’t have to deal with such a situation,” he said.
“The banking problem here appears to be a St. Maarten-based problem. But it’s actually a regional problem. The banks have no reason to change that. They are the only banks and without some kind of downward pressure they will not improve their service,” said Councilor Vito Charles.
Van Xanten said the lack of banking services was hampering Saba’s economic development. Interest rates are also very high: around 6 to 7%. In addition, banks require a deposit of 20 to 30%. As a result, building or buying a home is out of reach for the vast majority of Sabans, Buncamper noted.
The problem of not having a permanent notary on the island was also widely discussed. “We have cases where people’s money has been blocked for several years because the notary hasn’t had time. It’s an anti-climax for investors, and we haven’t seen the will to find a solution,” Buncamper said.
Charles explained that it was expensive to build, buy land and rent a house. “Therefore, as an island council, we had proposed a voucher system for rent instead of the complex Housing and Rent Market Act. The voucher system would actually help alleviate poverty instead of the complex housing law,” he said.
He asked Van Huffelen to share his perspective on poverty. She recognized that poverty is a very big problem that needs to be tackled. She confirmed that poverty reduction would be an important item in the distribution of the €30 million envelope from the Caribbean Netherlands. In addition, to be paid from the budget of 30 million euros, the increase in the free allowance, about which the Island Council also inquired.
“It looks like you already have a good understanding. The fight against poverty is important from the point of view of the family. Poverty has a significant impact on children and creates stress in families. We have to protect the next generation, protect them from poverty,” Charles said.
“As representatives of the people, we receive knocks or phone calls every day asking where they can go for help. The social system does not take into account the whole local context. People are desperate – they can’t pay their bills, can’t feed their families,” Buncamper said, adding that he was happy to hear Van Huffelen say she would look into this. “It has to be a multi-sectoral approach. All departments must work together.
Heyliger expressed concerns about the cost associated with banning plastics. He pointed out that products intended to replace plastics cost 50-75% more. Taxes even have to be paid on these items. Ultimately, the consumer has to pay for it. “A business owner asked me what could be done about it, because it’s very expensive.”
The conversation then moved to the issue of high transport costs and double taxation on products transiting through Saint-Martin. Van Xanten noted that all these high costs are passed on to the consumer, who is already struggling to make ends meet.
“People have two, three jobs to support their families. It creates a lot of stress,” Buncamper said.
Van Xanten noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the difficulties as the economy has been hit hard with far fewer tourists and medical students.
Charles said the crisis had shown the importance of showing Saba’s self-sufficiency, agriculture and herding.
Charles mentioned the high cost of electricity and telecommunications. Buncamper said that in this sense, it was important to offer support in times of crisis and high fossil fuel prices, which drive up the cost of electricity. “People are already in trouble. We need to create a transition until we can achieve 100% renewable energy,” Buncamper said.
Van Xanten noted that Saba receives a lot of ancillary funding for projects, but not enough structural funding to cover operation and maintenance costs.