Dutch State Secretary of Kingdom Relations and Digitization Alexandra van Huffelen arrived on Saba on Tuesday morning, February 22 for a two-day visit.
The State Secretary came in with a charter flight of WINAIR from St. Eustatius and was met at the Juancho Yrausquin Airport by Island Governor Jonathan Johnson, who gave her a brief explanation of the completed airport renovation project, the solar park and the construction of the new Fire Department.
Discussions with the Island Council
Poverty alleviation, the high cost of living, the poor banking services, the double taxation, affordable housing and the need to increase the free allowance, these were some of the major topics that the Island Council brought forward in a meeting with Dutch State Secretary of Kingdom Relations and Digitization Alexandra van Huffelen on Tuesday, February 22. “We want to improve the quality of life for all on the island. If that is via a higher minimum wage, lower internet and electricity costs. In the end, we are trying to make life a little more comfortablefor everyone,” said Councilman Hemmie van Xanten.
“Poverty is a big issue here. People live from paycheck to paycheck. What would help many people is a rent subsidy which so far hasn’t happened on any of the islands. The same goes fort he mortgage guarantee. It was introduced for Bonaire, but not for Saba and St. Eustatius. We have people here too that want to own their own home. I would like to especially help the young people to get their own house. For them, this is now almost impossible,” said Councilman Eviton Heyliger.
Councilman Carl Buncamper addressed the banking services. “As an Island Council, we see a lot of problems with the only bank on Saba which doesn’t provide the services that the people deserve. Last month, pensioners got their pension 10 days later. In modern society we should not have to deal with a situation like that,” he said.
“The banking issue here seems like a St. Maarten-based problem. But it’s actually a regional problem. The banks don’t have a reason to change that. They are the only banks and without some sort of top-down pressure they will not improve their service,” said Councilman Vito Charles.
Councilman Van Xanten said that the lacking banking services hampered Saba’s economic development. Interest rates are also very high with about 6 to 7 percent. In addition, banks require a 20 to 30 percent down-payment. As a result, building or buying a home is out of reach for the vast majority of Sabans, noted Councilman Buncamper.
The problem of not having a permanent notary on the island was amply discussed as well. “We have cases where people’s money has been in escrow for several years because the notary didn’t have the time. It is an anti-climax for investors, and we have not seen the drive to reach a solution,” said Buncamper.
Councilman 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 the rent instead of the complex housing and rent market law. The voucher system would actually help to reduce poverty instead of the complex housing law,” he said.
Charles asked the State Secretary to share her view on poverty. The State Secretary acknowledged that poverty is a very big issue that must be addressed. She confirmed that poverty alleviation would be a large item in the division of the 30 million-euro Caribbean Netherlands Envelope. Also to be paid from the 30 million euro budget is the increase of the free allowance, which the Island Council enquired about as well.
“It seems you have a good grasp already. Addressing poverty is important from a family perspective. Poverty has a big impact on children and it creates stress in families. We need to protect the next generation, protect them from poverty,” said Charles.
“As the people’s representatives, we get a knock or phone call every day, asking where they can go for support. The social system does not take the full local context into consideration. People are desperate, they cannot pay their bills, feed their family,” said Buncamper, who added that he was happy to hear the State Secretary say that she would be addressing this matter. “It has to be a multi-sectoral approach. All departments need to work together.”
Councilman Heyliger voiced his concerns about the costs associated with the plastics ban. He pointed out that the products to replace plastics cost a lot more, 50 to 75 percent more. Taxes even need to be paid on these items. In the end, the consumer has to pay for it. “One business owner asked me what can be done about this because it’s very costly.”
The conversation then moved to the issue of high transportation costs and the double taxation on products that come through St. Maarten. Van Xanten noted that all these high costs are passed to the consumer who is already struggling to make ends meet.
“People have 2,3 jobs to maintain their family. It creates a lot of stress,” said Councilman Buncamper. Van Xanten remarked that the COVID-19 pandemic added to the hardship as the economy was badly affected with a lot fewer tourists and fewer medical students. Councilman Charles said that the crises had shown that it was important to show Saba’s self-sufficiency, agriculture and animal husbandry.
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 struggling. We need to create a transition until we can realize 100 percent renewable energy,” said Buncamper.
Councilman Van Xanten remarked that Saba receives a lot of incidental funding for projects, but not sufficient structural funding to cover the operational and maintenance costs.