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Belize Tax Service Department: Que Pasa?

Belize Tax Service Department: Que Pasa?
July 06
12:21 2019

“The concern here, Madam Speaker, is there is feeling within members of staff, both Income Tax and GST, … that the government is using the opportunity to purge out people who they feel do not support them.”

-- Hon. John Briceño, House of Representatives meeting, June 21, 2019 --

On Friday, June 21, 2019, the Tax Administration and Procedure Bill was brought to the House of Representatives by the Barrow Administration. The Bill is supposed to “establish the Belize Tax Service Department; to facilitate the official and effective administration and collection of domestic taxes; to provide for tax procedures; to provide civil and criminal penalties for violating tax laws; and to provide for connected and incidental matters.”

The Tax Administration and Procedure Bill was ratified by the Senate on June 26, 2019, ushering in a new department of the Government of Belize as of July 1, 2019.

The new Tax Service merges the Income Tax and GST departments and on the face of it should make for better tax administration. However, the entire process of amalgamation has been wholly mismanaged, and we have heard not a sound from the Public Service Union (PSU). Public officers serving in these two departments, for all intents and purposes, have been left to fight their own battles.

Since 2005 the Unions, and especially the PSU, have been in a perks-induced coma. Mr. Barrow was able to enlist and maintain the support of the leadership and key influencers of the PSU, so much so that the PSU is now viewed as being in the service of Mr. Barrow and not the members of the public service. Scholarships, land, promotions; all keep the PSU marking time. You hear them shouting left, right, left right, but if you pay attention they are not marching anywhere. More optics than results and so the members of the public service remain at the mercy of their political masters.

The amalgamation of the two departments has been anything but smooth, but to give the impression of fairplay, public officers are asked to apply for the job that they currently hold, only to receive a letter stating, “We regret to inform you that you were not shortlisted. You did not meet the requirements to be interviewed.” Shamefully, senior public officers, some with more than two decades of service, are being passed over in favour of people who are far less experienced but way more politically connected.

When the Leader of the Opposition raised the issue in the House on June 21, 2019, the Prime Minister assured the House, and indeed the nation, that there would be no hanky panky at the new department and that public officers currently serving at either of the two departments would not be disadvantaged. Mr. Barrow proclaimed that those officers have a “menu of options” and that those “options, to summarize, include staying in the new department with no kind of loss of status or remunerations and with the prospects, the professional advancement trajectory remaining absolutely the same”.

If we are to believe that Mr. Barrow was genuine in his pronouncement then somebody clearly failed to advise the vetting committee which was set up to shortlist applicants. In fact, if you look at the panel you immediately have to wonder if the intent is as Mr. Barrow proclaimed it to be. The panel is being led by Mr. John Coy (an Administrative Assistant in the Ministry of the Public Service) who is assisted by Mrs. Michelle Longsworth (reportedly the soon to be Director General), Yadira Cantun (Administrative Officer in the Ministry of Finance) and Terry Smith (Under Secretary, Ministry of Finance).

The importance of filling these new posts with qualified, apolitical personnel cannot be understated, especially now that the new law prescribes serious criminal penalties for those who are found to be in violation thereof.

In 2013 some senior officials of the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS) fell under suspicion when it was discovered that starting in 2010, they created a “be on the lookout list” (BOLO) that targeted conservative groups. During this period, it was the liberal President Obama’s administration that was in power and it was widely perceived that the IRS was being used (whether on the instructions of the Obama administration or not) to pressure political opponents.

The Inspector General’s report led to House Oversight Committee hearings and the resignation of the IRS Commissioner. His deputy, who had been acting as Commissioner, was made to resign after it was discovered that she too knew of the BOLO list.

Unfortunately, Belize does not have that kind of robust oversight by Parliament and so our public service is subject to the whims and fancies of our politicians. If nothing else, the Senate hearings into the Immigration scandal involving Penner taught us that much. Those hearings are concluded but the Belizean people will never see that report. It will be hidden deep behind the legal manoeuvrings of the political class.

Good intentions aside, it can’t be that senior public officers are passed over by junior, but politically connected persons. It can’t be right that you are rejected for a post that you now hold, on the basis that you do not have the requisite “educational background,” when it is that you have been doing that substantive job for years.

I would dare say that such treatment of our public officers (especially senior ones) undermines the loyalty and commitment of all public officers. If you can treat the senior officers with such callous disdain, why should the young public officers be motivated to service us with unceasing loyalty and devotion? Would you commit yourself to an organization that can so casually discount and disregard all your years of service?

We can’t expect our public servants to be faithful to us if we treat them as if they do not matter. We can’t develop Belize without a professional, well resourced and highly motivated public service. The reported treatment of the senior public officers at the new tax department does nothing towards building such a public service.

Speak now or forever hold your peace Belize!

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