Public transport fares could increase
A town hall meeting debating the imminent National Budget heard a panel of Ministers hint at new initiatives for 2012.
These ranged from a likely increase in public transport fares predicted by Transport Minister Derrick Burgess, to Environment Minister Marc Bean’s support for developing Bermuda’s offshore fishing.
Along with Education Minister Dame Jennifer Smith, and Business Development and Tourism Minister Wayne Furbert, they joined Premier Paula Cox before more than 100 members of the public at Francis Patton School last night.
This was the last of a series of meetings launched for feedback on Ms Cox’s Pre-Budget Report, building on the paradigm of the Open Budget Process promised at last year’s Budget.
“It’s about following the money, following your money,” Ms Cox said.
Following the Premier, Mr Burgess acknowledged that the Island’s bus and ferry service was being heavily subsidised. As far as fares went for the coming fiscal year, he said, “I imagine they will increase a bit.”
He predicted 363,000 cruise ship visitors for the year ahead, versus the record near-400,000 for the year just past.
Dame Jennifer spoke of savings made by the consolidation of the Department and Ministry of Education at Southside, the use of Government estates for preschools to cut rent costs, and the continued attrition and non-renewal of contracts.
She predicted a $134 million Education budget for the coming year, and a college and careers pathways initiative for S3 students with the assistance of the private sector.
Mr Furbert said the $40 million spent on tourism in the past year had been effectively used mainly in advertising, noting that the $50,000 invested in the World Rugby Classic had netted a return of $1.1 million for the Island. He also emphasised the courting of hedge fund business for the coming year of business development.
Mr Bean pledged to continue to provide core services for an expected lean year for his Ministry, but ambitiously described Bermuda’s offshore fishing opportunities with the figure of $60,000 to $75,000 as the value for a 930lb bluefin tuna recently caught in local waters.
Referring to the recent Energy White Paper, the Minister also suggested liquefied natural gas as a more efficient replacement for oil as the Island’s power-supplying fuel.
As in two previous meetings, several members of the public expressed concern at paying more to bring in their online purchases.
Ms Cox told the audience that the possible duty of 35 percent “is not carved in stone” and said she was seeking “a happy medium on the level of duty” as Government seeks to harmonise the rates “Sometimes a better policy is where everyone is a little bit unhappy,” she said.
Asked by Emma Lopez to preserve spending for special needs residents, Ms Cox said Government would continue “to insulate those areas which are vulnerable”.
Questioned by Stuart Hollis on the teaching of Bermudian history in schools, Dame Jennifer said it was a topic currently taught under social studies, which may have downplayed its importance for students.
Mr Bean’s support for offshore fishing drew praise from audience member Leroy Riley.
The Minister drew applause after saying Bermuda should seek fees from foreign fishing vessels reaping large catches from the Island’s exclusive economic zone, and said Bermuda could employ inexpensive drone-type craft to police its waters.
Questioned on the possibility of an after-sales tax to do away with upfront duty costs for retailers, Ms Cox said such measures were not currently being considered. Pensioner Daniel Trott asked Ms Cox what was being done about Future Care, saying that he was being asked to pay medical bills.
The Premier said several Ministries were currently working on a memorandum of understanding to deal with health cost problems for seniors, and encouraged Mr Trott to liaise with the Ministry of Youth, Families and Sports for assistance.
Asked by Jonathan Howes on career guidance for students to prepare them for the Island’s workplace, Dame Jennifer pointed to the upcoming career pathways initiative that would partner Government with the business community to place young people in the right jobs.
And challenged by Diane Gordon not to cut tourism spending, but to tell people where his focus would be, Mr Furbert replied: “I said we were being cut. I didn’t say by how much.”
Telling her that he would have more to announce in the next couple of weeks, the Minister added: “Stay tuned.”