If the 2018-19 Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure are anything to go by, it is highly unlikely that the Customs department will be subsumed into the Barbados Revenue Authority (BWA) this coming financial year.
In fact, there is absolutely nothing in the 400-page document to indicate that the Freundel Stuart administration will be consolidating Customs in BRA, despite recent official statements to the contrary.
The over 400-page Estimates, which were laid in Parliament on Tuesday, make provision for a larger vote for Customs this year of $19.3 million, $2.7 million more than the 2017-18 allocation.
At the same time, there is a $1.7 million hike in the provision made for statutory personal emoluments which has been increased to $12.5 million, while other personal emoluments are estimated at $2.97 million, up from the $2.6 million in the current financial year.
Employee contributions for the department have also risen slightly to $1.56 million, up from $1.35 million in the 2017-18 Estimates.
With work scheduled to be done on the Customs Department’s Wharf Road headquarters this year, the amount set aside for maintenance of property has more than doubled to $357,305, up from the current spending of $155,079.
However, the revenue collection department’s operating experiences are expected to decrease somewhat based on an allocation of $335,000, which is $35,000 less than the previous year’s budget.
The amount allocated for rental of property and utilities has also increased slightly.
In the meantime, the sum of $227,329 has been allocated this year for “bad debt expenses” while no such provision was made last year.
The draft Estimates, which are yet to get parliamentary approval, did not provide explanatory notes for the amounts allocated for Customs, except for the sum of $84,528, which Government said it was putting forward under professional services for “the conveyance of cash”. However, that amount represents a decrease from the $109,528 that was allocated in the 2017-18 Estimates.
In the meantime, BRA’s overall budget has increased this year – even though slightly – from $26.5 million to $27.7 million.
Of that amount $27.3 million is to go towards operations, while $440,000 has been allocated for “the purchase of computer software”.
A total of $1.3 million has been allocated for the modernization of public procurement systems, which is nearly double the $579,782 set aside in the Revised Estimates for 2017-18. Of that amount, $180,000 is for professional consultancy services, which is triple the $60,000 allocated last year.
Government has also allotted $13.4 million for a tax administration infrastructure reform project, which should go towards improving the administration of taxes through the acquisition and implementation of an integrated electronic information technology system for the BRA and security scanning equipment for the Customs Department.
Overall the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs, the parent ministry for both Customs and BRA, will receive a $434.4 million vote. This is down from the $439 million allocation in the Revised Estimates for 2017-18.
However, despite missing several planned deadlines, as recently as last November Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler was still adamant that the Customs move would take place even though, the plan, which has been on the cards since April 2015, continues to encounter stumbling blocks, stemming from fears that at least two dozen of the 300-plus Customs workers would not be offered places in the BRA.
Besides issues of appointment, there is concern over pension rights, with the National Union of Public Workers advising Customs officers against signing onto BRA before the union gives the all clear.
However, Sinckler recently reported that Government was in the process of dealing with outstanding appointments for customs officers, while emphasizing that the BRA merger should be completed as soon as possible.
Following the signing of a $30 million loan agreement with the Latin American Development Bank for a Tax Administration Infrastructure Reform Programme last November, he had promised that an amendment would be made to the Pension Act to address the pension concerns of the officers.
However, the promised action is yet to be fulfilled.