When the Eleventh Sitting of the First Session of the Fourth House of Assembly (HoA) of the Virgin Islands commenced on Thursday, October 17, 2019, at the HoA Chambers in Road Town, Tortola, legislators were already primed for what would be a long day of proceedings.
With some sixty-nine (69) questions on the order paper directed to Minister of Finance, Hon Andrew A. Fahie (R1) and his Ministers by the VI Opposition, nothing could have prepared them for what turned out to be a shocking and unexpected statement from another democratically elected legislator of the House.
"I shouldn't be helping the government eh, but I got to help," the words of Second District Representative, Hon Melvin M. Turnbull (R2) late Thursday evening.
Mr Turnbull was at the time following up with Premier Fahie on the implementation of a new accounting software at the Ministry of Finance, and the possibilities of the new software to accurately report on the territories' uncollected revenues since 2014, a question posited to the House many times before.
"Mr Speaker, could the Honourable Premier and Minister of Finance please tell this Honourable House what is the detailed financial position of the territory as of 30th September 2019; a) Balance in Consolidated Fund?; b) Balance in the Reserve Fund?" Hon Turnbull asked.
Premier Fahie responded that the Balance in the Consolidated Fund stood at $54,522,221 and the Reserve Fund balance was $81,869,802.
However, Hon Turnbull had further sought to know the total uncollected revenue brought forward from December 31, 2015 to December 31, 2018 and the amounts that have been collected from the previous year.
As part of that question, he wanted to know the, "2015 balance and amount collected from 2014; 2016 balance and amount collected from 2015; 2017 balance and amount collected from 2016 [and] 2018 balance and amount collected from 2017," to which the Premier was unable to provide an answer.
According to Premier Fahie, "Since taking office my research has revealed that unfortunately, for several years now, most of the revenue collecting officers have not routinely filed the returns of arrears which would normally indicate what should have been collected and what was actually collected."
"In the absence of this critical data, it is extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible to any degree of accuracy to first estimate what amount may have been collected in a subsequent year or was owed or deemed arrears in a prior period. This matter is in the process of being addressed and hopefully, with this new system that we are putting in, we can have it addressed."
He said based on the system that was being used before and the procedures, "the cold hard fact is that the system doesn't have it to give it to us."
Responding to a follow-up question on whether dedicated persons were assigned to handle the issue, Premier Fahie indicated that currently, while the answer is no, with the implementation of the new accounting software forecasted to solve existing issues, new training is being executed for personnel in the Finance Ministry.
"Everyone right now is in training, just to be able to learn how to use the system [JD Edwards EnterpriseOne], the first priority is to make sure that they get the payments/salaries done more efficiently so they are working on that," Hon Fahie said while noting that another phase will address other features, including one that calculates arrears.
Starting from Scratch
Hon Turnbull then moved to clarify if the system needed to be started from scratch or whether it would encompass data gathering to generate new reports to which Hon Fahie indicated that more than likely, the system would likely have to be started from scratch based on his perspective.
"It is what it is, it has to start from scratch, that's how I see it unless somebody highlights me differently when the technocrats meet me because if it could have been done, it would have been done," he said.
Hon Turnbull, in seeking more clarity responded, "I shouldn't be helping the government eh, but I got to help him," and after brief mumbles from the House, he clarified, "No, I don't want to help the Premier in this, but I have to."
According to Mr Turnbull, "I don't want it to be carried across that the Premier is saying we are starting from scratch. If the House would recall, the 2015 estimates that I read twice in this house that was outstanding, was approximately $50M, so if the Premier is saying we have to start from scratch, it would mean that we are putting that $50M aside so I don't want that... because I don't think that is what the Premier was saying," he said.
No Sides - Hon Fahie
Hon Fahie responded, "Just in terms of language though, when you're saying you want to help the government... I [am] not clear what you mean, because remember we in this together, we helping the people, so there's no sides when it comes to this."
The Premier then noted that the obsolete accounting software was destined to fail and as such, is being phased out completely in what he says was a difficult decision to make.
"Once you change anything, there's going to be some processes that you have to go through, and yes some of it could have been done differently... everybody knew it was absolute before. I believe If there's a problem it don't make sense talking about it all the time and don't fix it," he said.
The Premier clarified; however, starting from scratch does not mean 'ground-zero'. He said it would mean going from department to department to gather financial data records, inclusive of hunting and gathering files which may or may no longer be available as a result of the hurricanes in 2017.