Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace has called on the Ralph Gonsalves government to say whether it has applied for EC$6 million in tax levy from the cash-strapped Building & Loan Association (BLA), which has been under the supervision of a state agency since 2012.
Eustace, addressing a campaign rally of his New Democratic Party (NDP) Friday night, said he was reliably informed that the government has accessed the funds, even as members of the building society have to wait months, in some instances, to access significantly smaller amounts.
“… today, to my surprise, I was told — and am asking Prime Minister Gonsalves to confirm — that the Government withdrew $6 million from Building & Loan,” Eustace said, adding that the monies are an interest levy.
“So on one hand, you are telling the person who has money there, you can’t get your money now, but the Government can take out this money?
“This is horrible! I am asking Prime Minister Gonsalves to tell me that is not true…” Eustace said.
“It is not acceptable! It is not acceptable, Gonsalves. You’ve got to deal with that,” Eustace said.
He added that he was told that EC$6 million was reportedly accessed to meet the demand of the Teachers’ Union and Public Service Union (PSU) for a one-month, tax-free salary payment before general elections, expected by year end.
The Unions have announced a strike for Tuesday as they heighten efforts to force the government to make the payment.
Gonsalves said the pay-out will amount to EC$25 million, which his government can afford in January.
“Some people tell me [the money] is to pay teachers,” Eustace said.
He told party supporters he is concerned about “all the effort they’ve been making by holding back other people’s money [and] as soon as Government want it, you take it out”.
Eustace said the development means that persons who have been waiting to access monies from BLA will have to wait longer than usual.
The matter is serious, Eustace said, adding that he wants Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Finance, “to tell the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines what is the situation with regard to that”.
The BLA was brought to its knees in 2012 after Luke Browne, then an employee of the Ministry of Finance, wrote a newspaper article raising questions about its management and financial health.
Browne’s article triggered a run on the institution, resulting in the Financial Services Authority taking over management of the BLA, which has since been transitioned to a board of directors and manager, even as the FSA maintains oversight.
Browne was appointed as a senator for the ruling Unity Labour Party administration in 2013 and made Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Sports.
He will, for a second time, attempt to unseat Eustace as MP for East Kingstown when the next elections are called.
Eustace said the latest development is “ridiculous”, adding that some persons could not access half of the EC$50,000 they have at the institution.
“And not only that, they getting into your business … I know a lady who went for some money to bury her mother, they told her no, she can’t get it, they going pay the funeral home.
“That is happening you know. So your private business, your private business, you have to tell them everything, about why you want your money. That is unacceptable.
“And if you have a task to do, it must apply to everybody including the Government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Eustace said in reference to access to monies at BLA.
“You can’t have one rule for the government and one rule for the ordinary people in this country who belong to Building & Loan for years. You can’t take out your money and leave other people money there and they can’t get it.
“You can’t do that! In any civilised country in the world, you can’t do that! Whatever you do, must be fair and equitable for everybody that is concerned.
“And I am really annoyed, greatly annoyed by the fact that is happening and I want Gonsalves to tell the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines what is the truth in relation to this matter.
“I’ve done my check already. I want him to tell the people of St Vincent, tell us, whether that is true,” Eustace said.
The government has been unable to pay wage increases to public sector workers since 2011.
“It ain’t our fault that you owe salaries for years,” Eustace said.
“We warned you about that, I warned them about that, over and over since 2001, I’ve been warning; they running deficit and so on and the time will come when they can’t pay salaries.
“Well the time gone. For more than 4 years, they can’t pay and now they threatening you to strike and you gone by Building & Loan to take out 6 million?” Eustace said.
“Come on! What are the implications for the ordinary citizens who have money in there and now they can’t get it out? They have to wait longer.
“I [am] not joking with this matter you know. Something has to be done with it. You, the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines, you must be aware of these things. All them sweet talk you does get from Gonsalves and them, you know, when it comes to managing the money belonging to the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines, they don’t know what they doing and very often they do stupidness (nonsense) that makes life worse for the average citizen in St Vincent and the Grenadines,” Eustace said.