Published On: Tue, Feb 5th, 2019

Opposition criticizes airport loans: “You have no deal”

Parliament meeting - 4 Feb 2019

PHILIPSBURG – Opposition members of parliament were firing on all cylinders during Monday afternoon’s continued meeting about the financing agreement for the airport-reconstruction. Prime Minister Leona Romeo-Marlin and Minister of Tourism and Economic Affairs Stuart Johnson were on the receiving end of their at times vicious remarks that culminated in a motion of no-confidence against the prime minister (see related article).

The prime minister opened the floor, providing answers to questions posed by MPs during a meeting on January 21. Management and board of the airport fully support the financing plan that offers a $50 million grant to the government and a $50 million loan from the European Investment Bank to the airport. Both the grant and the loan will be provided to the airport under the same conditions: 4.45 percent interest, a 20-year loan term and a 5-year grace period.

Romeo-Marlin reiterated that the Netherlands has “no intention to take over the airport.” Schiphol only provides technical assistance “The airport management remains responsible.”

The government’s loan to the airport is included in the draft 2019 budget that will be submitted for handling by February 19; no budget amendment is needed, the PM said.

Romeo-Marlin repeated that she had offered positions on the airport’s board and management team together with St. Maarten’s representative on the trust fund’s steering committee, former PM Marcel Gumbs.

Miguel Alexander has been appointed to an ad hoc committee that will advise the Council of Ministers about the implementation of the conditions attached to the grant and the loan.

Minister Stuart Johnson, who was absent during the first meeting, spent approximately half an hour to speak about the achievements of his ministry during the seven months he has been in office. He addressed his presence in parliament, saying that he had attended four different meetings. Opposition MPs later pointed out that their criticism is geared towards his absence in meetings of the parliamentary committee for Tourism and Economic Affairs; he allegedly did not attend any of these meetings.

Johnson spoke about the rebound of the hotel industry, his presence at a meeting with top cruise executives (“it was not a gay cruise”) and how he kept working in the face of a motion of no confidence proposed by the opposition.

Johnson mentioned one interesting point of concern: the trend of cruise ships to make only short stops in St. Maarten. “Sometimes, businesses have just four hours to benefit from the presence of cruise passengers.”

MP Frans Richardson was incensed after the minister’s presentation. “I have submitted 45 questions in writing and none of them have been answered.”

Parliament’s president MP Wescot-Williams later noted that ministers have three weeks to answer – in writing – to written questions. She suggested adjourning the meeting until the minister has completed these answers, but in a reaction Richardson said that he does not want these answers anymore: “I retract my questions.”

That, in turn, did not go down well with Wescot-Williams. “That retraction would have to be done in writing.”

Answering concerns expressed by MP Rolando Brison, Romeo-Marlin said that there is a “draft term sheet” – a document containing the conditions attached to the airport grant and loan.

Minister Johnson said that the dispute between the airport and insurance company Nagico remains unresolved. “The process is ongoing. They have agreed on mediators and an umpire. So far, the airport has received $58.2 million from Nagico.”

MP Richardson balked at the “beautiful presentation” by Minister Johnson that “had nothing to do with the issue at hand – the airport. The numbers don’t add up,” he said. “This is patchwork; and why bring in Schiphol? It does not make sense. The airport needs serious attention, not a plaster.”

That there still is no final term sheet is “a joke” Richardson said. “The agreement with the World Bank is the worst agreement this country has ever signed. First thing they do is talk about their commission. This is a total failure of people who do not understand how to put together a loan agreement.”

MP Brison labeled Minister Johnson’s presentations as “a self-glorifying speech.” He also addressed the lack of a final term sheet. “The reality is that you have no deal because we do not know what the conditions are.”

Brison also criticized the fact that US pre-clearance is not part of the reconstruction effort, “while pre-clearance is one of the top-ten priorities in the governing program.” He furthermore wondered why the government had refused to give the airport a guarantee letter that would have facilitated alternative financing. “If this is a liability you can offset it with assets. I am sure that our airport is worth more than $100 million.”

MP Christophe Emmanuel did not come back to the motion of no confidence against Minister Johnson he presented during the meeting of January 21. Instead, he said about the prime minister: “I feel truly sorry for you. There is a general deterioration of this country going on under your watch. It is a failure from the top and I understand why this happens with the Council of Ministers you have. The executive branch is falling apart.”

The meeting will reconvene on Thursday at 3 p.m.

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Related articles:
Motion seeks Prime Minister Romeo-Marlin’s departure