EDITORIAL – Customs duties: Re-examining a vital agency

When most people think of Cayman Islands Customs, they envision officers inspecting luggage inside the arrivals hall at Owen Roberts International Airport. That is one important function of the agency, but the “real work” performed by Customs has far less to do with personal effects in suitcases than with shipping containers loaded with commercial goods.

“Behind the scenes” (i.e. at the cargo port), Customs plays a pivotal role in our islands’ security, economy, governance and ordinary business activity – all of which depend on smooth and efficient Customs processes.

Most obviously affected are companies whose inventory must pass through Customs before making its way onto shelves and, eventually, to customers. Then there are private individuals who await delivery of personal property that first has to “clear Customs.”

However, there are few, if any, people in Cayman who are not affected by Customs’ ability, or inability, to process goods. Think for a moment – as an island territory with scarce natural resources and nearly nonexistent manufacturing, we rely on foreign imports for the most basic necessities (including flour and milk, not to mention newsprint and ink).

All of that “stuff” flows through Customs. It’s Cayman’s version of the Panama Canal.

The approximately $150 million that Customs officers collect each year makes up government’s single largest source of revenue, funding everything from social services to civil service salaries to infrastructure projects.

Moreover, Customs officials are responsible for intercepting dangerous or illegal materials – including guns, drugs and other contraband – before they cross the border and enter our community.

Despite its importance, in recent years Customs has failed to attract a level of scrutiny similar to that of its close cousin, the Department of Immigration. The agency rarely makes it on the front page of the Compass, except for the occasional misstep or individual scandal (such as, within the past year, the infamous “sugar glider” investigation, the arrest of a Customs officer in connection with the importation of 1.8 kilograms of cocaine, and the seizure of imported toiletries branded with a marijuana leaf logo.… And who can forget the tempest surrounding the frowned-upon “body massagers?”)

The “under-inspection” of Customs should become a thing of the past, in no small part due to Premier Alden McLaughlin’s proposal to merge the “goods-processing” duties of Customs with the “people-processing” duties of the Immigration Department, to create a single “border force agency.”

One thing that business school graduates and bureaucrats have in common is the mantra of “when in doubt, reorganize.” Change people’s titles, change responsibilities, change names … heck, change the furniture. But even in ideal circumstances, an immediate and unavoidable consequence of reorganization is disorganization. (Example: Have you ever moved from one house to another? The epitome of “disorganization” is a mountain of cardboard boxes.)

In a hospital setting, doctors can attempt to save the life of a sick patient by giving them blood or organs from a healthy donor. Our concern with the premier’s plan is that it may be an attempt to swap parts from patients, both of whom may be in need of medical attention.