EU funds in jeopardy

Millions of dollars worth of hurricane Ivan rebuilding funds offered by the European Union could go to waste unless government can commit the money to projects by 31 March next year.

Government and National Recovery Fund officials sought an 11th hour extension – until 2011 – to the EU’s previous 31 December 2008 deadline during last week’s EU Overseas Countries and Territories Forum, but were instead offered a three-month extension.

Government officials have not previously disclosed that the EU has been insisting that all of the recovery money be committed to projects by the end of 2008 – a requirement Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts described as ‘an impossible task’ during a recent meeting of People’s Progressive Movement supporters.

The Cayman Islands National Recovery Fund now faces an uphill battle to tender and choose contractors to carry out the remaining projects by the new 31 March deadline at a time when many contractors are busy with rebuilding efforts on hurricane Paloma-ravaged Cayman Brac.

Mr. Tibbetts told those at the PPM National Council Meeting that residents can expect to see ‘a very serious flurry of activity over the next six months’ on Grand Cayman as contractors go to work on over 150 homes that Mr. Tibbetts said still need to be rebuilt or redone.

‘We are developing now the plan and we are going to have to use as many contractors as we can in order to be able to expedite that process and use up the money within the next six months,’ he said.

Despite the long standing deadline, Mr. Tibbetts insisted that delays in obtaining the funds have not been the fault of government officials.

‘I won’t begin to tell you how much difficulty we have had over the past three years in actually acquiring the funds,’ he said.

‘The delays were not the fault of the Government here in the Cayman Islands; it was just the varying levels of bureaucracy we had to deal with,’ Mr. Tibbetts said.

The LoGB acknowledged that the tight timeframe for committing the funds could divert rebuilding resources from the Brac.

‘To do that within that time is going to stretch resources with the rebuilding efforts on Cayman Brac. But I believe we will be able to do it.’

In fact, Mr. Tibbetts suggested that there could be a silver lining to the dilemma.

‘If we manage this properly, it could not have happened at a better time, because many of the individuals on Grand Cayman that are finding it difficult now to get work; life will be a lot easier (for them) in the upcoming weeks and months between the efforts in Grand Cayman and all of the efforts in Cayman Brac.’

Mr. Tibbetts has previously said there would be no need to bring in foreign workers to help with post-Paloma construction. It is not clear whether this latest development will force a rethink of Mr. Tibbetts’ stance.

The LoGB said the reduced levels of unemployment he is anticipating will spur the economy while reducing strain on government.

‘We will be spending all of our energies ensuring that we plan this out properly and that Caymanians get the benefit of all of that work.

‘It’s a win-win situation once we handle it right because it means those that are still in the trailer homes will be able to get proper housing and we can move into all the other phases as swiftly as we possibly can.’

The EU has committed paying the National Recovery Fund €7 million (CI$7.47 million) but so far the fund has received only the first of seven promised tranches of just less than €975,000 (CI$1.04 million).

National Recovery Fund officials told the Observer on Sunday in September that it has rebuilt about 700 houses and another 400 have been repaired internally or fitted out with furnishings or appliances. Most of it has come out of private, corporate and Cayman Islands Government grants to the fund.

It said it needed the EU to widen its criteria regarding who could be helped with the money so it could provide assistance to others still struggling after Hurricane Ivan devastated Grand Cayman in September, 2004.

Under the criteria, only owner/occupiers of houses damaged by Hurricane Ivan that were uninsured and that earned below a specific income could benefit from the EU funds.

Officials wanted the criteria expanded to include under-insured people and those that were renting properties damaged by Ivan. Many of those were forced into government trailer homes after the storm and many remain there over four years later.

Mr. Tibbetts did not say whether any progress had been made on widening the criteria in last week’s negotiations and he had not responded to calls from the Caymanian Compass seeking further comment by press time Wednesday.

National Recovery Fund Executive Director Mr. Mark Laskin said the fund had only a limited role in the recent negotiations with the EU and could not comment on the looming deadline, instead directing all questions to Mr. Tibbetts.

Officials in the office of Financial Secretary Kenneth Jefferson, who were also involved in the negotiations, were unavailable for comment Wednesday.