Unpaid debts: Our 'collective' responsibility

As our government continues to grapple with the Cayman Islands’ solid waste management conundrum, another dimension to the problem has surfaced — dealing not with the cost of getting rid of Mount Trashmore, but of building it in the first place.

According to an auditor general’s report, ministry officials continue to pursue (how aggressively, we don’t know) outstanding garbage collection fees, some more than a decade old, totaling around $8.2 million.

For our readers who don’t happen to have a calculator handy, that equates to more than $130 for every man, woman and child living in our fair isles. That data point is worth mentioning because, when it comes to government, there is no such thing as an “unpaid” fee — any outstanding debts are merely spread around to the population as a whole, either in the form of increased taxes, or decreased delivery of services. In other words, “If you don’t pay — then we have to pay for you.”

However, currently in Cayman a different idea prevails, that is, if you receive services from the government, it’s OK to walk away, with little or no possibility of repercussions or consequences.

When it comes to uncollected government debt, Mount Trashmore is just the tip of the pile. The most egregious example of unpaid bills is, of course, money owed to the Cayman Islands public health system. Over five years from 2011 to 2016 (projected), the Health Services Authority’s accumulation of unpaid debt will have grown from $30 million to $80 million, which works out to an astounding $1,300 per Cayman resident.

As we argued in an editorial in June, if the government is serious about collecting unpaid healthcare debts, it should follow some basic steps, including:

Differentiate those who “can’t” pay from those who “won’t” pay.

For those who “can’t” pay, provide them with the appropriate assistance and demonstrate honesty in accounting by writing off those “bad debts” once and for all.

For those who are able to pay, but for whatever reason “won’t” pay, empower the Treasury Department’s debt collection unit to sue in court for the money that is owed to the public purse.

The same advice applies to unpaid fees for garbage collection, or any government service. What is important here isn’t reconciling the monetary values, but nurturing the key cultural value of responsibility — both fiscal and personal.

The concept is clear: We have got to pay our bills.

Private individuals and households in Cayman aren’t the only parties guilty of practicing the ethos of “slow pay or no pay.” One of the biggest offenders, more so on the “slow” side of the formulation, is the Cayman government itself.

Indeed, the government can take so long to render payment for products or services — three, four, six months or more, depending on the specific public entity or period in the budget cycle — that many companies steer clear of doing business with the government altogether. When all the inefficiencies, uncertainties and headache tablets are taken into account, it’s just not worth the time or effort.

That, too, is something that can ultimately harm Cayman’s taxpayers because it limits government’s selection of vendors, and thus, pricing and quality.
There are few valid reasons for people not to pay government for services fairly rendered. There are no excuses, on the other hand, for the government not to pay what it owes, and in timely fashion.