After about three years of inactivity, the Climate Change Trust Fund board may soon be getting the members it needs to operate again.
The body, which was created through the Climate Change Trust Fund Act 2015, was intended to support a variety of public and private “green” projects by securing grants and other funding from local and international sources. But progress has been slow.
Members were appointed in July 2017 under the former National Democratic Party-led government, and they got to work even though a tourist levy that was supposed to help finance their activities never reached the fund.
However, less than two months after the Virgin Islands Party came to power in the February 2019 general election, all six private-sector board members received letters from newly appointed Premier Andrew Fahie seeking their voluntary resignations, former board chairman Edward Childs told the Commission of Inquiry last September.
Members worried that the collective loss of their experience could be detrimental to the body’s future success, according to Mr. Childs. Instead of resigning as requested by the premier, they wrote back and asked him for a meeting, but they never received a response, he said.
But not long afterward, a public announcement from the Cabinet Office confirmed the members’ termination.
Mr. Fahie said at the time that Cabinet revoked the memberships because of a new “policy” limiting board terms to mirror the “lifespan” of the government in power.
The Climate Change Trust Fund Act, however, does not appear to give Cabinet that power.
Under the law, the minister responsible for the trust fund can revoke a board member’s appointment for one of five reasons: misconduct; lack of attendance; an undeclared conflict of interest; not fulfilling the conditions of an appointment; or acting detrimentally against the trust.
Mr. Childs told the COI that none of those five reasons applied to him — or, to his knowledge, any of the other members.
Since Cabinet revoked the memberships nearly three years ago, the premier has promised several times that new members would be appointed soon.
Now that may happen. On March 1, the Gazette published a job advertisement seeking to bring back the board.
“The severity of the impacts of climate change dictates early action on this issue to reduce our inherent vulnerability to natural disasters and external shocks, improve environmental management and the physical planning process and encourage the diversification of our tourism sector and energy portfolio, ultimately increasing our security and long-term viability,” the post reads. “As such, the government seeks to reconstitute the Virgin Islands Climate Change Trust Fund Board.”
The listing seeks six nongovernmental applicants from the following backgrounds: private sector tourism; private sector financial services; private sector from any industry “making contributions to the fund, responsible for making contributions to the fund, not already represented on the board;” academic or research organisations based in the territory; nongovernmental or community-based organisations based in the territory; and an individual resident “who may possess relevant knowledge, expertise or experience related to the purposed of the Climate Change Trust Act.”
The window for applications or nominations closes March 29.
The fund also needs money. Since 2017, tourists have been paying a $10 environmental levy, 40 percent of which initially was intended to go to the trust fund to facilitate operations like setting up a secretariat; hiring a CEO; and seeking outside investments, Mr. Childs told the COI last September.
But the money never reached the fund, Mr. Childs said, explaining that legislative changes are needed because the laws creating the trust and the levy “didn’t talk to each other.”
In December 2018, he added, Cabinet decided a way forward, but the decision never passed the House of Assembly.
“So we never actually benefited from those funds,” Mr. Childs said.
Finance officials have previously told the Beacon that the eco-levy earnings had not been tapped by other entities either for the same reason.
Questions about the levy arose again late last year during the Standing Finance Committee deliberations, according to a report on the closed-door proceedings.
Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley asked if the levy could be used to defray the cost of beach maintenance, to which NRLI acting Permanent Secretary Joseph Smith-Abbott reportedly said, “The short answer is yes.”
“The levy is intended to assist in the maintenance of tourism sites and overall environmental issues,” Mr. Smith-Abbott said, according to the report. “However, the ministry does not have access to the levy nor the other entities that would reasonably have the ability to access it.”
The SFC report added that Junior Minister for Trade and Economic Development Shereen Flax-Charles called the levy “a thorn in everyone’s sides who is supposed to be benefitting from those funds.”
She reportedly said that repeat visitors who pay into the fund have been questioning how the money is used.
“They come three or four times a year and they are not seeing where their monies are utilised, and persons who come regularly will notice a change,” the report states, paraphrasing Ms. Flax-Charles. “She remembered when the fund was created and asked why is it difficult for the ministries and departments to have access to the funds.”
Acting Deputy Financial Secretary Jeremiah Frett told the SFC that he could not give a definitive timeline for reinstating the Climate Change Trust Fund board, according to the report.
Mr. Fahie said at a press conference on Feb. 11 that he intended to re-establish the board, “even if it’s temporary.”
“We are trying to move toward advertising board positions, as we have promised long before anyone even brought it up,” he said. “But one of the challenges we’ve seen, which we have to overcome, is that a lot of the laws cause some challenges with how you advertise certain memberships.”
This includes positions the leader of the opposition or certain members of government are meant to put forward, he said.
But Mr. Fahie said he hoped to fill the board positions at least temporarily until any relevant laws for making such appointments could be updated.