Customs pinching pennies

The next time they come back from a trip overseas, Cayman Islands residents may want to make sure those receipts for items they bought are in order.

Her Majesty’s Customs Service has recently become a lot more stringent in policing travellers’ duty items.

Customs Collector Carlon Powery said the department has adopted what is, in effect, a ‘no tolerance’ policy on collections.

‘In these economic times, customs officers have to be even more vigilant,’ Mr. Powery said. ‘Customs is still the major source of government earnings.’

Individual travellers returning to the Cayman Islands are allowed to bring in up to $350 (US $420) worth of merchandise purchased abroad without paying any duty. Married couples can bring in up to $700 (US$840) duty free.

After that limit is reached, any and all newly purchased items that are assessed duty must be paid for. In the past, Mr. Powery said if people went $25 or $50 over the allotted amount his officers would likely pass them through without collecting duty owed.

‘Perhaps duty on that amount would have been five dollars (if the duty was 20 per cent on a $25 purchase),’ he said. ‘In more prosperous times, we might have let that go.’

‘We’re not allowing that tolerance now,’ Mr. Powery said.

Mr. Powery advised travellers to plan ahead for their trips by stopping by any Customs office a few days prior to their departure to register any high-dollar goods they are leaving the country with, like laptop computers or other electronics items.

Once those items are registered, customs officers can be assured they weren’t picked up abroad.

Penalties for non-payment of customs tariffs can be quite severe. Items can be seized by customs officers, and fines can also be levied for non-payment.

Mr. Powery said he realises some travellers may be inconvenienced by these measures, but he said customs duties make up the largest single line item of government revenue in the yearly budget.

The Customs service takes in roughly 40 per cent of all Cayman Islands government revenues each year.

He noted that some of the Islands’ larger importers have recently waved some duty refunds they were owed because of the economic situation the government has found itself in.

‘Maybe there is something positive we can take away from that,’ he said.

The Cayman Islands government is facing an estimated budget shortfall of some $132 million by the end of the current fiscal year on 30 June. The ruling United Democratic Party has proposed some $89 million in expenditure cuts as well as increased fees and charges to make up the gap.

The government’s new budget is expected to be proposed later this month, and Leader of Government Business McKeeva Bush has indicated the spending document will be ‘bare bones.’

The government is also awaiting word from the United Kingdom as to whether it will be allowed to borrow some $372 million to keep operating through June. The UK has previously expressed concern that level of borrowing could send its overseas territory into a ‘debt spiral.’