By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
THE Minnis administration has been unable to track down $42m of $150m borrowed under the former Christie administration for hurricane repairs, Finance Minister K Peter Turnquest said yesterday, revealing in Parliament officials can only give an account for $108m of the hefty loan.
However, he added, this does not mean the remaining money is unaccounted for, just that the government had not been able to trace it but is still looking. Last October, nearly seven months ahead of the 2017 general election, the former government moved a resolution in the House of Assembly to defray the costs of recovery and reconstruction efforts needed as a result of 2016’s Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Joaquin in 2015.
Amid backlash over his administration’s borrowing, then Prime Minister Perry Christie was adamant his government had checks and balances in place to handle the $150m loan. At the time Mr Christie maintained the money would be well accounted for using measures that are already enshrined in law.
However, Mr Turnquest told parliamentarians yesterday a great deal of the loaned amount remains unaccounted for. The revelation comes at a time when many homes damaged by both hurricanes have still not been repaired or rebuilt.
He said: “I have often gotten the question from the media lately ‘What did Hurricane Irma cost?’ as if we can just automatically drop this number. It’s not that easy unfortunately. But we do have a team of experts doing the assessments and hope to have a justifiable estimate very soon.
“What we do know, however, Mr Speaker, is that we can only trace approximately $108m of the $150m that was supposedly borrowed and spent on Hurricane Matthew.
“And while I’m not saying the balance is unaccounted for, all I am saying is we just cannot find it. (We are) still looking, still looking.
“So you want to know where the VAT money gone, that’s just some of it. As we go through we might find more of it. “
When the resolution was brought to Parliament last October, the former prime minister said the combined cost of the damage from both hurricanes was about $600m for Matthew and $200m for Joaquin. This equated 40 per cent of the national budget or nine per cent of GDP.
Because of the huge cost associated with restoration and recovery in the wake of both hurricanes, then State Finance Minister Michael Halkitis stressed it was essential the government accessed the funds as it was not possible to finance the recovery efforts from the existing budget.
Mr Christie further explained officials from the Ministry of Finance had designed a two-tranche approach to dealing with the funds. He said the funds were exclusively for the reconstruction effort.
At the time, Mr Christie said: “The Royal Bank of Canada is the government’s banker. It is with gratitude and pride that I note that all of the banks contacted have readily agreed to participate in the financing that we are about to present by way of resolution to Parliament.
“I also note for the information of members that ordinary citizens and residents of the Bahamas have also expressed an effort in participating in this effort and in this respect the Ministry of Finance has designed a two-tranche approach. A tranche for commercial banks for up to $120m and a tranche for the public in the amount of $30m.”
“The Central Bank has recommended that non-residents with a nexus to the Bahamas be allowed to participate in this offer. So these are high net worth individuals who live in the Bahamas who the Central Bank would facilitate their participation in the $30m offering.
“My government accepted the recommendation of the Central Bank. It is for me, therefore, to indicate that these funds would be exclusively used for the reconstruction effort.”
Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis, then in opposition, called for the formation of a special committee to monitor how the government spent the $150m.
While Dr Minnis acknowledged the funds were needed, he questioned the government’s ability to properly manage the money.
Dr Minnis later told The Nassau Guardian: “We agree that there is mass devastation when we look at Grand Bahama, Andros, and New Providence, especially the south. There is mass devastation.
“We agree homes were lost. We agree lives were changed. We agree businesses have been lost and we agree that it has contributed to unemployment. It needs to be fixed. People’s lives need to be changed and their homes need to be corrected.
“But this government has a terrible track record of transparency and accountability,” Dr Minnis said last October of the Christie government..