On Tuesday, February 22nd, the high cost of living, poverty alleviation, poor banking services, double taxation, affordable housing, and increasing the free allowance were the major topics the Island Council brought forward to the Dutch State Secretary of Kingdom Relations and Digitization Alexandra van Huffelen.
“We want to improve the quality of life for all on the island, and this can be via a higher minimum wage and lower internet and electricity costs. In the end, we are trying to make life a little more comfortable for 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 that hasn’t happened on any of the islands. The same goes for the mortgage guarantee. Although introduced for Bonaire, this hasn’t happened for Saba and St. Eustatius. We have people here too that want to own their own home. I want to help young people 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 a regional problem. The banks don’t have a reason to change that. They are the only banks, and without some 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.
They also discussed the problem of not having a permanent notary on the island. “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 building, buying land, and renting houses were expensive. “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 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 huge issue that must be addressed and confirmed that poverty alleviation and increasing the free allowance would be a large item in the 30 million-euro Caribbean Netherlands Envelope division. “It seems you have a good grasp already. Addressing poverty is important from a family perspective. Poverty has a big impact on children, creating 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 consider the full local context. 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 replacing plastics costs 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 increased costs pass down 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 that hardship as the economy was severely affected by fewer tourists and fewer medical students. Councilman Charles said that the crises had shown that it was essential to show Saba’s self-sufficiency, agriculture, and animal husbandry.
Charles mentioned the high cost of electricity and telecommunications. Buncamper said that it was vital 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 insufficient structural funding to cover the operational and maintenance costs.