Six of Abaco’s seven local government districts were represented at the government complex in Marsh Harbour on August 5, 2015. Grand Cay was the only district that was not represented. Chief Councillors and/or Deputy Chief Councillors were present from Moore’s Island, South Abaco, Central Abaco, Hope Town, North Abaco, and Green Turtle Cay.
The Chief Councillors group has no funds to work with and no authority to make meaningful decisions. Collectively this group represents Abaco’s population of more than 16,000 residents at the local grass-roots level.
Hope Town’s Chief Councillor, Jeremy Sweeting, organized the first meeting in 2008, and the group has met sporadically through the years since then. The agenda for this meeting had several important topics to discuss.
Next year, 2016, marks the 20th anniversary of local government and the group has begun talks about how to celebrate this event and gain further recognition.
Recently, central government passed a bill authorizing local government to collect real property taxes for the Treasury with an unknown percentage being returned for local use. Concerns were raised by those districts that will not be realizing much revenue, Moore’s Island or Grand Cay, for instance. Details on how the system will work have not been released yet.
The group felt that giving this responsibility to local authorities along with the ability to retain some for local use will increase tax collections. It is not known what the existing property tax revenue amounts to or what a potential return might be, but it is thought to be sizeible in the districts with foreign-owned properties.
A universal concern of those attending was learning recently that all councils will have a 12-percent reduction in their operating budgets. This amount will be held in reserve by Nassau and released only if properly justified.
The councillors were interested to learn of the various pay scales used in the different districts. Due to restrictive funding one district has a school janitress being paid $75 a month for daily cleaning of the school restrooms. This is less than $4.00 a school day.
Population figures for the 2010 census showed the Green Turtle Cay District with a population of 595 and the Hope Town District to be 818. These figures can be misleading. Both districts are popular tourist destinations, and the population can increase by several thousand at Christmas, spring and during July. It is believed that budget planners in Nassau use census figures and do not take into account the area’s growth of second homes or hotel guests. An increase of people translates to an increase of refuse with an increase in collection effort but no increase in available funds.
The group made plans for the seven chief councillors and seven deputy chiefs to go to Nassau as a group to plead their case for adequate funding. Abaco has been growing steadily and has one of the best economies of the Family Islands. It is said to be the second heaviest contributor to the Treasury after New Providence. However, local government funding has either remained the same or for most districts been reduced.
Attendance at a meeting like this by persons from Moore’s Island and Grand Cay is difficult as a trip to Marsh Harbour is both expensive and time consuming. Both are an hour away from the Abaco mainland by boat, then another hour by highway and both require an overnight stay.