Government largess dwindles after public exposure
Local churches received nearly $4.2 million as part of the government’s Nation Building Fund between late 2009 and early 2011, according to records released by government last week.
However, between the latter half of 2011 and the early part of this year, those grants dropped off to around $1 million for the two-year period – one-quarter of what the former government administration spent during its first two years.
That number becomes even lower after subtracting the funds given back from various churches earlier this year. According to Cayman Islands Finance Minister Marco Archer, four local churches that received cash from the Nation Building Fund for various purposes gave back more than $221,000 to the government during the previous budget year.
A 2009-2011 group of grants to the Wesleyan Holiness Church in West Bay for property purchases and a new hurricane shelter/fellowship centre was partially returned last week. More than $728,000 was returned, with the church promising to give back either land or its equivalent value that was bought with the government grants.
Mr. Archer said he was grateful for the churches that had returned the government grants, which the cash-strapped central government simply couldn’t afford to pay.
In total, the government gave $2.18 million in nation building grants to 12 churches in 2009/10, $1.97 million to 14 churches in 2010/11, $420,000 to eight churches in 2011/12 and $604,583 to 12 churches in 2012/13.
Press reports about the Nation Building Fund expenditures came out toward the end of the government’s 2010/11 financial year.
The finance minister said Friday that he was not generally opposed to government granting churches funds for some community services. However, Mr. Archer stressed it was the manner in which the grants were given by the previous United Democratic Party government – the process – that was unpalatable.
“Many churches can and do provide legitimate non-governmental organisation services with funding from government,” Mr. Archer said. “The government will continue to fund these programmes within reasonable limits and according [to] what is affordable.
“Expenditure that is not properly supported and justified cannot and should not expect to be continued,” he added.
Mr. Archer expanded on the subject of the Nation Building Fund grants to local churches during a candidates forum in February at the University College of the Cayman Islands, accusing the then-UDP government of corrupt activity.
“Absolutely, unequivocally, I believe that the money that was given to those churches amounts to nothing more than corruption,” said the then-George Town candidate. “If you look at the way the money was given, it was going to select churches. It was not given publicly, it was given under the table.”
Mr. Archer gave one example during the February UCCI debate, stating that the Presbyterian church he attends in West Bay might have been a good spot for a community hurricane shelter, as it occupies one of the highest points in the district. However, no approaches were made to the church about establishing such a shelter, he said.
“The simple reason for that is that at least two candidates from that church have contested elections against McKeeva Bush,” Mr. Archer said.
Former Premier McKeeva Bush said Friday that he was “really disappointed” at all the uproar over the Nation Building Fund grants to churches.
“The People’s Progressive Movement, when in government [2005-2009], gave the Chapel Church of Bodden Town a commitment for their building programme. The United Democratic Party government expanded that offer to other churches through the Nation Building fund when the UDP went into office in 2009.
“The churches in the country all do [a] tremendous amount of work for the community. Not all of them can afford to as much as others, but they all do a good job.
“As for our civic hurricane/emergency centre for West Bay [part of the Wesleyan Holiness Church project], I thought the offer was a good deal for the church to work with government to build the centre together.
The church and wider community [could] use it when necessary and government [could] have it in times of emergencies or otherwise. That would lessen the long-term cost and expense of the government, thus the country.
“Now that funds have been given back because of the “talk”, I hope they are all satisfied!”