The former Festival and Fairs Committee heads did not take kindly to the announcement that was made by Minister for Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture, Dr. the Hon. Natalio Wheatley at a press conference on 5 April when he said that the previous committee left a debt of $300,000.
The comment was made by the Minister at a press conference that was held to announce plans for the Virgin Gorda Easter Festival. During that press conference the Minister said that he has asked the new Festival and Fairs Committee to keep focus and be financially responsible.
In announcing that festival last year went over budget the Minister said: “Before we have even started, before we have even spent one red cent we are already in the hole by around approximately $300,000; and that is based on unbudgeted expenses from the previous administration.”
“I understand that festivals cost a lot of money and based on what we want to do, the allocation we currently have cannot cover that, so we have to make a decision whether we are going to allocate money which will call on money being taken from other areas or we are going to live within our means,” Hon. Wheatley stated.
The Minister said that he is not willing to over spend on festivals when there are pressing education needs and other development issues especially since the Territory is still in recovery mode. “It is easy to go out and spend lots and lots of money and everybody has a good time, but considering where we are in our development…considering the needs that we have in this Territory following the storms of 2017, it behooves us to be very responsible in terms of how we spend every cent because in this Ministry I have persons who want to get scholarships to go abroad. I have persons who want to develop their talent in music and sports, I have persons who are not sitting in the best environments to teach and to learn even to administer their duties in the Ministry. We have to be much more responsible in terms of how we spend money,” Hon. Wheatley explained.
He made a call for the annual festivities to be scaled back: “If we live within our means that means that some of what we have become accustomed to has to be scaled back,” he said.
He said he will take the flack for the decision to scale back, “I’m going to take the flack for it but scale back will happen because we have a limited amount of money and we cannot repeat the current situation where we have hundreds of thousands of dollars of unbudgeted expenditure moving forward.”
Former Committee Members React
In a JTV interview former Chairman of the Festival and Fairs Committee Trefor Grant sought to explain the overspending that was mentioned by the Minister: “I would like to add a little context about the $300,000 in payables for festival just for people to understand. After Standing Finance Committee (SFC) last year, the Ministry advised the Virgin Islands Festival and Fairs Committee that Festival has to be scaled back and the SFC was totally in agreement with this especially coming out of the circumstances with Irma and Maria,” Grant explained.
He said that as a result of the decision a figure of under one million was given to the Committee a short time before the Easter Festival that year: “The figure that was given to us roughly ten days or so before the Virgin Gorda Festival was $700,000. Of that we allotted $26,000 for Virgin Gorda, and we went ahead planning Virgin Gorda and executing it because it was very late in the game. Right after Virgin Gorda we went ahead and signed and secured agreement in about May or June for the hosting of the Tortola festival which was essentially right around the corner and getting all the agreement … all of the contracts signed up, and all of the artistes locked in. We received a couple payments from the government and it totaled $350,000 and on July 16 the Minister [Myron] Walwyn disclosed that after a further meeting with the Premier [Dr. D. Orlando Smith] he decided that the $700,000 that was initially pledged for the festival only $350,000 could be made available,” Grant explained.
“Up until that point festival was well within its agreed budget of $700,000, so the debt would not have been there if the original planned amount had not changed at that late stage. The committee under my leadership did an amazing job,” he added.
Meanwhile, Xavyrna Samuels, the former Vice Chair of the Festival and Fairs Committee in a Facebook post expressed her displeasure with the Minister’s comment about the festival debt.
Samuels said: “Last year the Committee was promised $700k and at the very last minute, funds were cut to $500K after many commitments were made. We produced festival at $800K, the first time that it has never gone over the $1mil mark. For Hon.Wheatley to basically belittle the committee in terms of their handling of festival is ridiculous and irresponsible and for any past VIFC member sitting on the current body and condoning this accusations. When I was appointed to festival in 2011, taking over from the VIP administration, we met outstanding bills in excess of $1mil. We did what we had to and for the first time the committee was able to lower the cost of festival on an annual basis leading up to last year,” she added.
The average roofless citizen, however, feels that all that money could be spent better, there are also those who would like to know how much in dollars and cents the BVI gets in return for its festivals and fairs because the attendance to festival village and to the parades has dropped year after year, and very little BVI cultural content is highlighted during our festivals.