The Legislative Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee last week questioned government’s reasons for selling off Crown-owned properties determined to be “surplus” in a five-year-old review by the Lands and Survey Department.
The sale of those lands – valued at an estimated $65 million in a 2014 consultant’s report – was proposed as a way to prop up the public purse, which faced repeated deficits early in the decade.
However, at the time, Premier Alden McLaughlin set a much lower goal for earnings from excess Crown land sales, somewhere in the region of $8 million to $10 million. Also, government has posted annual budget surpluses of more than $100 million since the 2013/14 spending plan.
Opposition MLAs on the Public Accounts Committee last week wondered why government would sell any of these properties while in a surplus cash position and with land values increasing and availability becoming more scare on Grand Cayman.
“I cannot get my mind around [the] fact that government wishes to liquidate assets that are not costing them any money to maintain, but in fact are gaining in value daily,” accounts committee chairman Ezzard Miller said. “Once it’s sold, it’s sold.”
Bodden Town West MLA Chris Saunders said he was more concerned about the process government was using to determine which lands were sold, and to whom.
“We need to go out and engage the people, not a group of people that are sitting down and trying to push their will through,” Mr. Saunders said.
Lands and Survey Department Director Rupert Vasquez said, following recommendations in the Ernst & Young consultants report in 2014, his department took land sale proposals to the Progressives-led government caucus which narrowed the initial list. This was objected to at the time by Mr. Miller, the North Side MLA, who said a political caucus was not a legally recognized body that had decision-making authority within government.
After the caucus review, Mr. Vasquez said the National Conservation Council also requested that certain properties be removed from the list.
MLAs were then given a revised list of potential properties for sale in January 2017. According to Mr. Vasquez, if any MLA objected to the sale of property within their representative district, it was removed from the list. There were also objections to certain property sales by the National Roads Authority and the Water Authority-Cayman for various reasons.
After taking into account all those factors, a revised Crown property sale list went to Cabinet in May 2017. The newly elected government still has to make some decisions to clarify what properties will be made available for sale, Mr. Vasquez said.
“Crown land holdings will be reviewed regularly,” he said.
Both Mr. Miller and Mr. Saunders generally objected to the process Mr. Vasquez described, saying it is not transparent. Mr. Miller said that while MLAs received a list of properties for sale in their own districts, they were unaware of any properties made available elsewhere. He also said members of the public had no idea what the government was discussing.
Moreover, the MLAs noted, in the absence of a national development plan for the islands, it seemed difficult for government to state precisely what properties might be considered surplus.
“While it might appear as useless property today, 10 or 15 years from now it might be the perfect place to put a small park in a community that has development,” Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Miller said he was aware that the Public Accounts Committee could be seen to be “trespassing on government policy” with the land sales issue, but he noted there were significant concerns about value for money.