By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Senior Reporter
RESIDENTS and businesses in economic empowerment zones of New Providence have accessed about $1m in tax concessions since the programme was launched in 2018, an official said yesterday.
Kemi Jones, programme manager for the Over-the-Hill initiative, said about 40 residents and businesses have been approved for concessions according to the latest figures, with more than 80 applications submitted and in some stage of processing.
“We’ve seen a significant increase in both persons applying and persons being granted concessions under the economic empowerment zone legislation as compared to the last time we spoke to the press,” he said after a press conference announcing a partnership between the government and the Caribbean Agricultural Research & Development Institute (CARDI) for a new backyard farming project in Over-the-Hill areas.
“We attribute that to us changing our strategy by virtue of the nature of persons in the Over-the-Hill community and engaging in more one-on-one activities with businesses and residents. It does take a lot of time to explain to people the benefits and how to apply but we are encouraged seeing the outcome and results. For people whose applications are in various stages of processing, some might not have gotten key information back from their contractors yet or they are delinquent with their business licence so we would be working with them to get them to be compliant before they can actually proceed because we cannot work with you if you are in breach of the law.”
The Tribune reported last March that only 17 people had applied for concessions with 14 granted approval.
The programme was among Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis’ marquee promises in opposition as he pledged to improve the impoverished areas. Today, those in the communities can import materials for constructing, equipping and completing buildings without paying taxes if they qualify.
Critics, including Progressive Liberal Party leader Philip “Brave” Davis, have criticised the penetration of the concessions. Ministry of Finance officials once projected the government would lose $7m annually because of the exemptions.
Mr Jones said Cabinet has now granted approval for concessions to be accessed domestically and not just through imports.
“If you want to fix up your house or your building we are trying to work with local businesses so you can buy materials here at a concessionary rate, so that means if you want to fix up your shop you don’t have to go to Miami to get your material, you can buy it from a vendor on the ground here at a similar discretionary rate,” he said, adding that part of the programme will be launched in about a month.
As for the new backyard farming initiative, Samita Ferguson, executive director of the Over-the-Hill programme, said that harkens to an era “where homes in Over-the-Hill communities were arrayed with fruit-trees and vendors lined the streets to sell healthy, home-grown produce.”
Agriculture Minister Michael Pintard said a new study his ministry commissioned shows the agricultural sector has contracted as much as seven percent over the last ten years even as the demand for food increased. He expects, at the next meeting of parliament, to table the study, which was prepared by the Inter-American Development Bank. The backyard farming programme will provide technical support to students in public schools.
“The idea is school can be used as the epicentre, the nursery where you can set up to grow your feed and your backyard farms in the immediate area will benefit from it,” Mr Pintard said. “They can get seedlings from nurseries in the school system. Eventually we want vendors and tuck shops to source their vegetables and fruits from those communal gardens.”
Plans for many of the most touted parts of the Over-the-Hill programme have not been finalised, including a promised food market for native products in the area, an auto-mechanic cluster to eliminate roadside mechanics in residential areas and a multi-purpose community centre to offer care for children, the elderly and opportunities for counseling and sports.
“The white paper had about 210 actions in it,” Mr Jones said. “That’s a mammoth task to take on. We’re doing our best. We are prioritising what we are doing, not based on our internal preferences, but on feedback from leaders and people in the community. We’re already in talks with leaders of St Agnes, for example, to move forward with affordable daycare options at the old pre-school they have on Market Street. It would not just be affordable daycare, but other activities as well, including an adult literacy programme to make that one of the initiatives that can serve multiple purposes.”