Ten Cayman Islands churches – although one has since returned its cheque – were granted some financial support from the local government during the current budget year, according to Premier Juliana O’Connor-Connolly.
The grants were made, as in previous years, out of the government’s Nation Building Fund that was approved as part of the 2012/13 budget, which was passed by the Legislative Assembly in late August.
Premier O’Connor-Connolly confirmed last week that her government has taken the position that it would honour all commitments made in the 2012/13 budget, including those grants approved from the Nation Building Fund.
However, she also noted that none of the 10 church grants for various projects and community programmes were newly approved since her five-person interim government took over following the ouster of former Premier McKeeva Bush and his United Democratic Party members from government on 18 December.
“These were commitments that were made, signed and communicated to the various persons before the 18th, 19th of December before we took over,” Ms O’Connor-Connolly said. “We felt that, as a holding government, we were going to keep those commitments for the funds that were there. Any new commitments that came in, we would not be processing them.
“Can you imagine what the headlines would be as the renowned Christian within the group who attends Red Bay church refused to give the church, after the former premier approved and communicated to them?”
Although Ms O’Connor-Connolly did discuss some details of $108,000 in nation building grants given to the Church of God Holiness in Red Bay during a Thursday press conference, the details of the other nine churches that received similar grants during the current budget year still had not been released as of press time Sunday.
The premier did agree all those records for the 2012/13 Nation Building Fund budget should be released. “It is the public funds and the public should know what is happening,” she said.
On 31 January, the Caymanian Compass made an open records request to government seeking a complete listing of all funds spent or budgeted to be spent for the Nation Building Fund – transfer payment No. 52 in the budget – between the 2009/10 and 2012/13 financial years.
The information for the 2009/10, 2010/11 and 2011/12 financial years was released the next day.
However, no records for the Nation Building Fund expenditures regarding the current 2012/13 budget year have been released. According to the government’s spending plan for the current year, some $4.5 million was budgeted for Nation Building Fund-related projects.
The Compass reporter making the open records request asked for the 2012/13 budget records on 1 February. He received no response for 10 days. He then sent an email 11 February following up on the request in which a civil service information manager assured they would “follow up and get back to you” about the request.
On 6 March, the reporter emailed again asking for an update on the request. No response was received. At this stage, the 30-day time frame for a response under the Cayman Islands Freedom of Information Law had passed.
On 12 March, the reporter emailed again asking for a status update on the request; none was forthcoming.
On 27 March, nearly two months after the initial request was filed, the reporter again sought clarity on the status of the request. He received the following response:
“Due to audit queries and the ongoing investigation [this remark left completely unexplained], our accounts department is unable to make this a priority,” the email response from the information manager stated. “We do appreciate your understanding in this regard and is working diligently to provide this information to you as soon as possible.”
At this point, the Cayman Islands Information Commissioner’s Office advised that given the time that had elapsed, it could be deemed that the government had refused the initial FOI request for the 2012/13 transfer payments to the Nation Building Fund. Given that, the Compass reporter asked for an internal review of the situation. By press time, on 14 April, no information about the Nation Building Fund grants during the 2012/13 budget had been received through the open records request.
The controversy that exploded last week over the $108,000 in funds given to the Red Bay church for roof and parking lot repairs, and also for the church band, was largely due to the fact that the general public was unaware this financial assistance had been provided to the church until Premier O’Connor-Connolly announced it during a service there on 7 April.
Ms O’Connor-Connolly explained the situation with the Red Bay church during Thursday’s press briefing.
She said the initial funding request was made to then-Premier McKeeva Bush in May 2012. Church officials said their roof was in a “state of disrepair” with water leaking through to the ceiling and that problems with a flood-prone parking lot was making it difficult to attend services when it rained. A grant of $108,000 was approved.
In addition, rumours of a payment to a church in Cayman Brac began swirling late last week, causing representatives from the Hillside Chapel Church to give back the Nation Building Fund grant they were given.
Reverend Audley Scott explained in a letter to “all media” last week that a request for $50,000 to repair damage from 2008’s Hurricane Paloma had been sent to then-Premier Bush in February 2012.
In July 2012, Rev. Scott spoke to Ms O’Connor-Connolly about the matter and was informed in February 2013 that the funding had been approved. On 31 March, a cheque for $50,000 was received, Rev. Scott said.
However, “because of all the negative publicity and political spin” the church council on 10 April decided to give the money back.
“Our need is great, but our God is greater,” Rev. Scott said.
“I do support giving to churches and other organisations within our community,” the premier said Thursday. “If persons want to take political stabs at me, for doing what we thought was right, I apologise if they feel that’s what’s going to make their heart tick.”