By Hon. Lindsay Grant
On Friday, 27th May, 2022, Wendy Phipps, who is one of a handful of officials in the illegal Cabinet of St. Kitts & Nevis, spoke to the media and deliberately lied and misrepresented the current situation at the St. Christopher Air & Sea Ports Authority, SCASPA.
She also used the occasion to cast aspersions against the hard-working private citizens who gave their time and expertise to serve on the Board of Directors and attempted to malign the professional reputation of senior management of SCASPA. Her attack on their integrity was uncalled for and misguided.
Since her address, many have questioned her motives and have expressed shock and horror that someone whom they thought possessed the right morals and ethics, allowed herself to be used by her boss, Dr. Timothy Harris, to spread innuendos and boldly lie to the citizens of this country.
Ms. Phipps used the state media, ZIZ, and social media, to mislead citizens, giving the impression that something was wrong at SCASPA, even though she is aware that the Port Authority is emerging from the many challenges of COVID-19, into a stronger position.
Ms. Phipps looked into the lenses of the television cameras and into the eyes of Kittitians and Nevisians and without regard for her own integrity, she lied over and over, even though she has the true facts about SCASPA.
Therefore, as the former Minister responsible for SCASPA, I have taken on the duty to present the true facts to the public and to expose the lies that were peddled.
Here is the true picture.
Firstly, let’s look at SCASPA’s Financial Performance
For the first four months of 2022, that is the period 1st January to 30th April, The St. Christopher Air & Sea Ports Authority, SCASPA, recorded a profit. Yes, SCASPA was in the “black” at the end of April this year.
For this first quarter, SCASPA’s profit was EC$423,933.00. This is quite a remarkable achievement for an entity that was so badly bruised by consistent losses due to COVID-19.
These are not my personal opinions; these are the facts that can be verified. And Ms. Phipps should have known better. And in fact, she did know better, but instead, she preferred to lie to the nation.
Now, let us look back for a moment on the tough years of 2020 and 2021, during the height of COVID-19.
These were two years when companies across St. Kitts & Nevis were closing their doors, left-right, and center. Employees in the private sector were losing their jobs and thousands more were made redundant.
COVID-19 was ravishing the world with millions of infections and hundreds of thousands of people were dying.
Here in St. Kitts and Nevis, our nation was terrified about the increase in COVID-19 cases, and in 2021, the death toll started.
During that period, SCASPA, just like the Federal Government and private companies, had to find ways to mitigate the financial challenges that resulted from the closure of our air and sea ports.
Despite these difficult times, not one cent was given to SCASPA from the Federal Government to cover its monthly operating expenses. SCASPA had to fend for itself through prudent cash flow management.
You would recall that it was the whole country that was on lockdown. Cruise vessels were forced to cancel their calls and airlines stopped flying, not only affecting St. Kitts & Nevis but the entire world.
Let us keep in mind that SCASPA makes a large block of its money from the visit of cruise ships. For example, for the period January-April this year, the cruise sector provided the Authority with 43% of its revenue.
How, therefore, can Ms. Phipps, a former Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce, and someone who should have a sharper understanding of business, how could she allow her boss to send her before the microphones to mislead the public?
Ms. Phipps, for example, is aware that in 2019, just before the global pandemic, SCASPA recorded revenues of EC$60.2M. Its Expenditure that year was EC$59.2. Therefore, in 2019, SCASPA made a profit.
However, in 2020, the first year of COVID-19, the revenues dropped by $28M to EC$32M. And why did they drop? Because no ships were coming, and the planes were canceled and St. Kitts & Nevis was closed to the world.
Then in 2021, the second year of COVID-19, revenues dropped further to EC$26.3M But in addition, the expenses also fell by approximately 13 percent, compared to 2020 to $51.3M due to the cost cutting measures implemented.
For further clarity cruise passenger arrivals fell from a high in 2019 of 1,045,842 to 263,426 in 2020 and then 101,845 in 2021
When ships and planes are coming, SCASPA makes money, and when they are canceled, like during a pandemic, it affects the revenue stream.
Despite the tough consequences of the pandemic, SCASPA kept its workers employed so that they could provide for their families. Staff allowances were reduced or discontinued, and Management and Board took a 10% pay cut.
All this sacrifice was being done by SCASPA, at a time when private companies were permanently closing down, and hundreds of people were being made redundant.
The Port employees remained on the job exposing themselves to the possibility of being infected by the virus, and some got infected.
These hardworking employees sacrificed their lives so that the cargo ships can safely arrive with food and essential supplies to provide for all citizens.
This is something Ms. Phipps should applaud SCASPA for, not launch attacks that are not consistent with the truth.
I am calling on Ms. Phipps to soberly reflect on her recent actions and to apologize to the staff, the management, and the directors of SCASPA, for her unwarranted political attack.
Apologize and let the people know that what SCASPA achieved in the first quarter of 2022, was a financial miracle and indeed a financial success.
Let the public know the truth, which is that SCASPA was able to rise out of the COVID-19 fallout and produce a surplus, up to April this year, just 33 days ago.
With this background that I have just shared, how could she have lied, giving the impression that SCASPA was in such trouble that the Federal Government had to bail it out?
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Further, on the heels of her malicious attack on SCASPA, there was a document circulating alleging that SCASPA owes SKELEC in excess of $10M and the perception is that SCASPA is largely responsible for SKELEC’s poor financial situation.
SCASPA’s annual electricity bill is just over $1M annually. It means therefore that SCASPA would not have paid SKELEC since it became Corporation some 10 years, ago.
This is far from the truth. SCASPA has been paying SKELEC consistently since its establishment except for the two years of the Pandemic. The amount due to SKELEC based on a payment plan that I was preview to, is just over $2m which SCASPA services, monthly.
The $10M that is being paraded, relates to disputed billings of more than 20 years and includes amounts coming forward from the days of the Airport, being a Government Department.
The original amount was over $20m and following a review of the records that was available to SCASPA at the time, a pattern of excessive erroneous billings was demonstrated to the then Electricity Department and $10.7M was removed from the statements over the years 2009-2012. The notes can be found in the audited accounts for those years. The balance that is being circulating was submitted to MOF for resolution and as far as SCASPA is concern, it has no bearing on SKELEC’s current financial situation.
Government Subvention of $17.2M
Another matter raised by Ms. Phipps relates to a subvention of $17.2 Million from the Federal Government.
This money was not provided because the Port was badly managed in 2020 and 2021. No, this money was to help pay for the chronic missteps of her friend and present colleague.
Ms. Phipps is fully aware that the Cabinet approved the subvention to cover three main items.
Here is the breakdown of the $17,287,767.00. And every dollar was accounted for.
- $6,974,287M went to the Arbitration in connection with the construction of the second cruise pier under the guidance of former Minister of Ports, Ian Patches Liburd.
- $3,000,000M went to the Retrofitting of Robert Bradshaw International Airport. The amount for the airport was to ensure that it complied with COVID-19 requirements that were put in place by the Ministry of Health and the COVID-19 Task Force. I should remind you that at the time, the Minister of Health was Wendy Phipps.
- $6,513,480 was allocated for Fenders and Dredging at the cargo and cruise piers, to correct issues that originated during the tenure of former Minister Liburd.
- The remaining $800,000 was a partial contribution towards the payment of the double salary for staff after the last-minute announcement by the Minister of Finance and outgoing Prime Minister, Dr. Timothy Harris.
It is also important to note that through the mishandling of SCASPA by the Former Minister, SCASPA has had to pay over EC$15 million in costs associated with the legal entanglements of the 2nd cruise pier. These costs included Arbitration Legal fees, Arbitration Engineering fees and corrective Dredge work.
The $17.2M was approved by the Ministry of Finance and Cabinet and allocated for the three specific purposes, ONLY. Even though Ms. Phipps knew these facts, she misled the country by suggesting that the money was given because SCASPA was illiquid or unable to cover its ordinary operating monthly expenditure.
It seems therefore that Ms. Phipps revoked the appointments of the recent Board Members, for their correction of mistakes of her friend and colleague and the former Minister of Ports. What an injustice!
Her motives had nothing to do with SCASPA. Her actions were purely politically motivated.
The final three points I wish to touch on are related to her claims of conflict of interest, the employment of new staff and an Audit.
Once again, her claims have no merit. Here are the facts.
On her claims of conflicts of interest, she offered no specifics. And the reason is that the recent Board did not facilitate any new contracts or business that represented a conflict. Thus, unless she makes a specific charge, there isn’t anything to say on that matter.
It was claimed that 67 newly hired persons were being paid significantly more than other employees. What she did not say is that the average salary for these persons is EC$2,487.00 per month. This is what Ms. Phipps calls exorbitant.
Ms Phipps must also be aware that of the 67 new hires 27 were for Security.
These hires were as a result of recommendations from Security Management to be compliant with international Standards and was part of a comprehensive plan to revitalize the Security Department.
In fact, TSA conducted an audit in April 2022 and I am proud to say that during the out brief, in which the then Minister of Civil Aviation, Mark Brantley was present, TSA commended SCASPA and the Government for the marked improvement in the quantity and quality of security staff at the Airport, as this was a major deficiency identified during their previous audit.
What Wendy Phipps should have explained is that, unlike in previous years, and as part of the revamping of the Security department, all new security officers are now required to have a minimum of 4 CXC subject passes, including English and must undergo and pass the Maritime security, Aviation Security and Port Constabulary training programs, before they are confirmed as employees.
These are the officers who have been given a slightly higher salary, compared to others without the 4 subjects and all the requisite training. Therefore $2,500 per month does not create a national emergency on the payroll. The plan of SCASPA is to have the existing officers trained and brought up to the required standards and pay scale within a 6-month period.
Come on Ms. Phipps, how could new security officers, getting less than $2,500 per month be too much.
Also included in that 67 number, are 13 Seaport Operations officers. These officers were on staff as temporary workers during the December 2021 busy period and stayed on past 3 months to augment the pre-clearance procedure that was instituted by customs department. Those officers were made permanent to support this process and included on the list of new hires in 2022.
4 Officers were attached to Air Traffic Services Division, as this area was and still is inadequately staffed, based on international requirements.
2 marine pilots hired to replace the 2 that was separated from the Authority late 2021, a Chief mechanic as the existing officer has reached retirement and the remainder were custodial – cleaning staff and customer service ambassadors for the Airport. These 67 new hires are from the length and breadth of St Kitts, every village and town.
She also stated that SCASPA would be subject to an Audit as if to suggest that is gross mismanagement of the financial resources of the organization. I wish to let the public know that SCASPA’s books are audited yearly, by external auditors. All audited reports up to 2020 can be found on SCASPA’s website and the 2021 accounts are currently being audited by independent external auditors.
As I conclude, let me say that I was, and remain alarmed, that the government official could have used prime time and state media to embarrass the former board members and carry out a political hatchet job on behalf of her boss and close friend.
Many have asked, how could Wendy Phipps allow herself to be an agent of deceit for her outgoing Prime Minister.
She did all this, even though she knew that she was pocketing $27,000 to serve on the COVID-19 Task Force, even though she was already being paid over $13,000 a month as a Minister of Government and received her December double salary.
This is the same Ms. Phipps, who thinks that $2,500 is an exorbitant rate of pay for security workers with 4 subjects who underwent and passed the required training.
Also noteworthy is that Wendy Phipps revoked the appointment of 4 Board Members’ and subsequently 3 others have resigned.
My fellow citizens, these are the facts. This is the true picture as it relates to SCASPA.