In May 2015, the Office of the Auditor General published a scathing report on public assistance programs in the Cayman Islands, finding that government was doling out more than $50 million per year in welfare benefits with little oversight and no criteria.
More than seven months later, nearly nothing has been done to address the problems auditors identified. Officials, in fact, don’t know what they’re going to do. According to Chief Officer Dorine Whittaker, they do, however have a plan, which is … get this … to make a plan.
First, a brief aside. In our opinion, the Public Accounts Committee is largely worthless in terms of exercising meaningful authority, assisting the enforcement of laws and ensuring that repercussions are felt for mismanagement or wrongdoing. Its meetings often offer little more than a public platform for lawmakers to practice politics.
That being said, the PAC meetings do serve the interests of one segment of Cayman society in particular: that is, the news media. (Thanks!)
If there’s anything reporters love more than an easily digestible news item, it’s the opportunity for “one-stop shopping” to accumulate several stories at the same time. In that respect, the PAC meetings, to journalists on deadline, are the equivalent of Walmart on Black Friday.
Last week, the PAC reviewed eight separate reports from the Auditor General, ranging from land management practices, to IT security, to the Nation Building Fund. Most of the ground the committee explored was newsworthy, but none of those areas carried a price tag rivaling the eye-popping $50 million per year for public assistance programs. Few parts of government do.
To put Cayman’s welfare spending into context, the $50 million constitutes about 10 percent of core government’s spending. It’s more than the government spends on primary education services and secondary education services, combined ($45 million). It’s roughly twice the amount of government subsidies to Cayman Airways, and approximates to five Turtle Farms.
According to the Auditor General, a full 10 percent of core government’s spending budget is flowing out into the populace, pretty much indiscriminately, for whom and for what purposes, officials aren’t entirely clear. But rest assured, says Chief Officer Whittaker, they’ll soon have a plan — in the form of a business case by yet-to-be-hired consultants that may be ready by the end of 2016.
Now, we are on the record as being supportive of the idea and institution of rational, well-targeted social assistance programs, which Cayman’s is not.
As we wrote in an editorial last July, when the Auditor General’s report was released to the general public: “The problem with social services in Cayman isn’t the amount of money being spent, necessarily, but how that money is being spent … Rather than a properly managed public welfare system, Cayman has a patchwork of programs that, in part, act as an institutional disincentive to gainful employment by the able in mind and body, and foster a culture of government dependence … Every dollar that is given to someone who does not really need it, is a dollar that could have been given to someone who does.”
In addition to the unchecked and unmonitored public welfare benefits, consider the Treasury’s propping up of Cayman Brac’s economy through subsidies and line-item spending, as well as the long-standing tradition of lawmakers (and aspirants) handing out cash and goodies to individual supporters — which George Town MLA Winston Connolly described as “shut-up money.”
Then there’s the country’s biggest social assistance program of them all: the salaries, benefits and pensions paid to the nearly 6,000 employees in the public sector — far too many of them for a country the minuscule size of Cayman. Those costs, just for the 3,500 people in central government, amount to more than $250 million in the current fiscal year.
Especially disconcerting is that government appears as baffled as we are about who is receiving these funds, what were the criteria for qualification, and what are the projected future costs of these programs.
Expenditures of this magnitude — without strict accountability — could send the Cayman Islands to the proverbial poorhouse, raising the following question: To whom will we apply for “public assistance” when our own funds run out?