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Legislation to streamline administration of tax law

PHILIPSBURG--The contours of new legislation to streamline the administration of tax law in the Caribbean part of the Kingdom were presented Wednesday by President of the Joint Court of Justice Evert Jan van der Poel and quartermaster and project leader Jane Jansen.

Since October 2014, Jansen has been responsible for the preparation of the implementation of new legislation to introduce the possibility for appeal and cassation at the High Court in The Hague in tax cases.

One of these preparations concerns the establishment of tax administration with the Courts of Aruba, Curaçao and St. Maarten, as well as for Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba.

Up until now, Aruba is the only country in the Dutch Caribbean to have implemented legislation to make appeals in tax cases possible. Aruba adopted the law on January 1.

In case there is a legal dispute with the tax office, one can now submit this case, similar as in civil cases, to the Court of First Instance. Under the new law, the Joint Court of Justice serves as Court of Appeals for all fiscal matters, including fines. A judge who will be solely hearing tax cases will be installed in August.

Under current legislation, the Council of Appeal for Tax Cases (Raad van Beroep voor Belastingzaken) is the only legal entity to settle tax disputes in Curaçao, St. Maarten and the Caribbean Netherlands.

As of June 30, the Court of First Instance in Bonaire will serve as Court of Appeals in tax cases for Bonaire, Statia and Saba, with the Joint Court of Justice obtaining appellate authority.

St. Maarten and Curaçao are still working on implementation of the new laws. The Council of Advice of St. Maarten presented a report in December 2014. The Department of Legal Affairs is now preparing a new proposal to be submitted to the Ministers of Finance and Justice. After approval by the Council of Ministers, the changes to the law will be presented to Parliament.

Pressure

Van der Poel said he was hopeful of a speedy introduction of the new laws. He said some pressure needed to be put on Parliament and the Minister of Justice to achieve this. "These laws are not only of importance to residents and businesses, but also to investors who not only want to know if they are entitled to a tax holiday, but also want to know if their investments are protected by law. This is essential if you want to attract big players. It is very important for them to know that they will have forums for appeal, including the High Court of the Netherlands," said Van der Poel to his audience of lawyers, tax office workers and civil servants.

Under the new laws, the Courts on the various islands will be serving as front offices for their respective islands. These will serve as contact, information and reception points for their "own" cases. The St. Maarten Court will also serve as front office for tax cases from Statia and Statia. A back office for tax administration for all the islands has already been established in Aruba.

St. Maarten tax cases will be heard in St. Maarten, but tax cases concerning Statia and Saba will be heard on the respective islands.

The new legislation is intended to streamline the process and to make the administration of justice in tax cases more efficient. Under the current system it takes from approximately 18 months to two years before a case is heard.

This also has to do with the fact that tax cases are currently heard by a three-judge panel from the Netherlands, who are flying to the Caribbean two times a year to hear a large number of cases.

The new way of working is to make it possible to hear cases within one year and to present a decision within six weeks after the hearing. It is the intention to hold tax hearings in St. Maarten every two months.

Currently, some 125 tax cases from St. Maarten are pending with the Council of Appeal, approximately half of which are ready to be heard and handled, it was stated.

The second chance for appeal in tax cases was introduced in the Netherlands on January 1, 2005. The absence of appeal was considered in violation of the European Human Rights Treaty and the International Treaty on Civil and Political Rights. A draft law to also introduce appeals in the Dutch Caribbean, was presented to the Parliament of the Netherlands Antilles in July 2010.

At the end of the meeting, Van der Poel said he was hopeful to be able to evaluate the first phase of the changes by next year.

Sarah to lobby opposition for audit chamber investigation

PHILIPSBURG--Democratic Party (DP) leader Member of Parliament (MP) Sarah Wescot-Williams said she will be lobbying her fellow opposition members to bring about an investigation by the General Audit Chamber into the security contract between St. Maarten Harbour Group of Companies and Checkmate Security.

Wescot-Williams said that to get answers Parliament has the powerful instrument of a parliamentary enquiry as mandated by the Constitution, and outlined in a national ordinance. However, she will first lobby to get the audit chamber's investigation into Economic Affairs Minister Claret Connor's "handling" of the security contract.

Two weeks ago, Connor had presented what had appeared to be a copy of the security contract for MPs to peruse during a meeting of Parliament's Permanent Committee for Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transportation and Telecommunication. The copy showed a price crossed out and another written in with pen.

Reacting to questions from MPs, Connor apologized for the confusion caused by the two prices on the contract, indicating that he penned in the second amount as a note and it should be disregarded.

Connor's apology and admission that the notation was made by him has "complicated the issue" and puts government "in the middle" of the security contract issue, said Wescot-Williams. This action is motivation enough for a call to the audit chamber to investigate Connor's handling of the issue.

Parliament has been asking questions about the contract for several months now, but has come up against a stone wall. MPs have not even been able to ascertain whether the proper procedures were followed in awarding the contract, or who the shareholders of the company are.

Government seems to have put off the submission of answers about the security contract between Harbour Group and Checkmate Security, Wescot-Williams said in a party press conference held in Parliament House on Thursday afternoon.

Connor had to submit answers to parliament's questions within two weeks. That period expired yesterday, Thursday, and nothing had been received by Wescot-Williams at the time of the press conference.

Parliament consultation

Wescot-Williams will travel to the Netherlands in the coming days as part of the delegation to the Inter-Parliamentary Kingdom Consultation IPKO. She called for government and parliament to refocus their efforts to be on the same line on issues to be more effective in the future.

Dutch Kingdom Affairs Minister Ronald Plasterk has recently stated that trade agreements will be discussed at the upcoming Kingdom Conference that will be attended by all governments in the Kingdom.

Trade is an area the IPKO is slated to discuss, she pointed out. The way the system is set up, the MPs will have to come back and ask government its trade stance, while it really should be that MPs and government are fully informed and have a collective stance for the betterment of the country, she said.

Similarly, government and Parliament have to look into the adoption of the competition regulation. The country, unlike Aruba and Curacao, is not ready with a competition regulation to standardize open and fair public bidding, among other areas.

Wescot-Williams called on government to update Parliament about the progress to establish competition regulations.

Many areas covered by IPKO's agenda and that of the Kingdom Conference are "overlapping," said Wescot-Williams. "It is a pity Parliament has not been able to sit with government and synchronize approaches."

Cohesion between government and Parliament is also very much needed on the push for the establishment of a dispute regulation for the kingdom, she said. It is clear that the Dutch Government and the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament are one line. "If St. Maarten wants to act strong ... government and Parliament need a clear agenda."

Integrity law

Wescot-Williams said she was still baffled by government dropping its hot pursuit to get Parliament to pass the national ordinance to establish an integrity chamber. She recalled that Prime Minister Marcel Gumbs and Justice Minister Dennis Richardson were "peeved" that Parliament appeared to be dragging its feet on the law. It has been almost a month since government was to be back in Parliament with the law and nothing has happened.

Quarterly reports

Finance Minister Martin Hassink has informed Wescot-Williams that he will not deliver monthly financial reports on government's revenues and expenditures, but stick to delivery of the legally required quarterly reports to Parliament. The first quarter report should be sent to Parliament this month.

The MP had asked the minister to present monthly reports in the debate on the budget earlier this year. The reports, whether monthly or quarterly, are "an important instrument" for parliamentary oversight.

Wescot-Williams intends to continue to press the chairman of the Parliament's Permanent Finance Committee to hold meetings on the 2013 annual reports of government-owned companies. She had been pursuing meetings for the longest while to no avail.

"I will continue to sit on this matter," she said, adding that past lawmakers did not put in the law that annual reports should come to Parliament "just to put them in a drawer."

Opt out

Wescot-Williams has once again opted out of attending a committee meeting of the Latin American Parliament Parlatino. The committee of which she is a member is slated to meet from June 5-7 in Cuba.

After reviewing the agenda, the MP said there was nothing on it that was "of significance to St. Maarten." Therefore, she has "politely declined" to attend.

DP fraction advisor Emil Lee said it was laudable that Wescot-Williams opted not to attend the meeting. She is being "fiscally responsible" with this, more so, as Parliament has not yet balanced its budget for 2015, he said.

Guadeloupe, Colombia stay main hospitals for referral

THE HAGUE--The policy of the Dutch Government remains unchanged: residents of Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba in need of specialist medical care will keep being referred to hospitals in Guadeloupe and Colombia.

Dutch Minister of Public Health, Wellbeing and Sports Edith Schippers sees no reason to reconsider the choices that were made in the past for the medical referral of patients of the Caribbean Netherlands, she stated in a recent letter to the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament.

The minister based her decision on an elaborate study carried out by an independent professional research bureau Sigil from Panama. The report “Benchmarking of International Rates of a Sample of Medical Procedures,” a scan of the level of health care in countries surrounding the Caribbean Netherlands, was compiled on the request of the Dutch Ministry of Public Health, Wellbeing and Sports VWS and the health care facilitating company Coomeva.

Guadeloupe CHU hospital and five hospitals in Colombia were among the fourteen medical institutions that cooperated with the study. Eight other hospitals that complied with the request to provide information on their services and performance were two hospitals from Puerto Rico, two from the Dominican Republic, two from Costa Rica, as well as the hospital in Aruba and Curaçao.

Schippers explained that a total of 36 hospitals had been contacted. Despite the recommendation letter of the VWS Ministry that was sent, none of the five hospitals in the United States were willing to cooperate, and neither were a number of medical institutions in Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Panama and the Dominican Republic. The St. Maarten Medical Center (SMMC) did not appear on the list of contacted hospitals.

The minister gave several reasons for the low response. The absence of incentives to be transparent on vital business information because the small size of the Caribbean Netherlands population which made it less interesting as a potential growth market. The limited interest to do business with the Dutch Government, as well as the general adversity of companies to make vital information on for example their indicators and tariffs public.

The study looked at five indicators of the hospitals and their care: presence of international care facilities, availability and capacity of a number of medical specialisations that are interesting for patients of the Caribbean Netherlands, diagnostic possibilities and accreditations. The tariffs of ten different groups of treatment were compared.

The fourteen hospitals met, on average, 86 per cent of the international services parameters. The institutions had an average of 288 beds and serve medium to high complexity cases. Of the 14 hospitals, eight have international certifications and five have international recognition.

According to Schippers, the study gave a global view of the level of availability of specialist care, the presence of a specific international department and which hospitals were exceptionally and unnecessarily expensive.

Hospitals that scored well in terms of a larger infrastructure and good management for the care of international health programmes were: the Santa Fe de Bogota, Health Clinic Americas and Children’s Heart Foundation in Colombia, the HIMA San Pablo and PRESBY in Puerto Rico, General Health Plaza in the Dominican Republic and the Clinica Biblica in Costa Rica.

Member of the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament Ronald van Raak of the Socialist Party (SP) suggested referring patients to Cuba at a debate with Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Ronald Plasterk on Wednesday.

“Cuba has excellent health care. Why not send patients especially of St. Eustatius and Saba there instead of the more expensive Colombia,” Van Raak said. Plasterk said he was not aware of Cuba’s excellent health care, but promised to bring it to the attention of his colleague Schippers.

Prosecutor asks for three years for causing fatal traffic accident

PHILIPSBURG--The Prosecutor’s Office requested three years and a five-year revocation of his driver’s licence Wednesday against the man who caused a fatal traffic accident on Bishop Hill Road, which took the life of a 46-year-old pedestrian.

David Charles was killed early Saturday morning, February 28, when he was hit by a car on Bishop Hill Road. A Nissan X-Trail SUV was travelling from the roundabout at the junction of Bishop Hill Road and A.Th. Illidge Road towards Oyster Pond at 6:55am when the driver lost control of his vehicle and hit a car that was parked on the side of the road.

Charles, who was walking down the road from his house to take garbage to the bin, was hit by the car and landed under the wheels of a backhoe, which was parked on the property where the accident occurred. The victim suffered severe trauma to his head and body and died on the scene.

The driver of the car, suspect A.R.D. (28), said he could not remember anything about the accident. A blood test revealed he had a blood alcohol level of 2.33 per cent, more than five times than permitted.

D. had been working from 7:00am that day. He did not have breakfast or any other proper meal during the entire day, but had been drinking several Desperados with his girlfriend’s brother, after which he had visited Casablanca adult entertainment centre, where he had consumed more beer and cognac.

The accident occurred while he was on his way home after almost 24 hours without sleep. D. told the Judge on Wednesday that he had no recollection of how much he had been drinking that day or how the accident had happened.

D., who is working at his father’s accountant’s office, is currently under supervision by the Parole Board and by Mental Health Foundation. He said he was willing to pay the cost of the victim’s funeral, via his insurance. The victim’s widow filed a claim for damages during Wednesday’s court proceedings.

Prosecutor Tineke Kamps said she did not consider manslaughter proven in this case, as the defendant did not purposefully kill the victim. “He did make some very wrong decisions, but there is no evidence that he was driving around like a madman,” the Prosecutor said in requesting an acquittal on this charge.

The Prosecutor, however, found it proven that D. was guilty of culpable homicide, which involves the illegal killing of a person without an intention to kill. This crime carries a maximum prison sentence of two years, but when committed under the influence the same crime carries a maximum sentence of six years.

“He has given insufficient consideration and has acted recklessly,” said Kamps. “He literally drove the victim out of his shoes, which is an indication that the suspect was speeding.”

The Prosecutor also pointed at surveillance camera images shot at Casablanca, in which suspect was seen walking unsteadily.

The Prosecutor recommended the Court to award damages to the widow to the tune of US $5,000. Suspect’s lawyer Shaira Bommel said the claim for damages should be rejected because it was “too vague and too complicated. A civil court should be dealing with this matter,” said Bommel.

The lawyer denied that her client had been driving recklessly. Bommel said no traffic-accident analysis had been carried out by the police and, therefore, it could not be established that her client had been speeding.

“My client’s guilt cannot be automatically derived from the seriousness of the consequences. A minor case of inattention can also have big consequences,” Bommel said. The lawyer denied that her client had been driving recklessly, “very imprudent at best,” she said.

The lawyer said her client, who is suffering from fits of panic since the accident, is showing a lot of remorse and has extended his sincere condolences to the bereaved. She said D. should not be sent back to prison and called on the Court to impose a suspended sentence, in combination with community service. The Court will give its decision June 10.

Still no consensus on dispute arrangement

THE HAGUE--The four countries of the Kingdom generally agree that the Council of State would be an ideal body to handle the dispute arrangement. However, the negotiations to reach an agreement have not been successful thus far.

Dutch Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Ronald Plasterk confirmed during a debate with the Permanent Committee for Kingdom Relations of the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament on Wednesday that no consensus had been reached on establishing a dispute arrangement. There are less than four weeks to go until the June 16 Kingdom Conference in Curaçao where the dispute arrangement is one of the agenda points.

The Council of State is a logical choice to act as a body for the assessment of disputes between the Kingdom partners, said Plasterk. Making use of the Council of State means that no new, specific arrangement or body would have to be created. "The structure is there, as is the constitutional basis," said Plasterk.

There are several stumbling blocks in the negotiations between Aruba, Curaçao, St. Maarten and the Netherlands. Parties have been talking about the range of the dispute arrangement and whether its advice should be binding.

Member of Parliament (MP) André Bosman of the governing liberal democratic VVD party said that in his party's opinion the advice should not be binding. "I will always defend the interests of the 16-plus million people in the Netherlands, because ultimate responsibility for the Kingdom is ours," he said.

Bosman made an issue of the representation of the countries in the dispute arrangement. The overseas countries want a say that is equal to that of the Netherlands, but political support for this is lacking in The Hague. Bosman said he wanted a proportional representation. "If you would ask me I would have one for each of the overseas countries and 354 for the Netherlands," Bosman said.

Plasterk said the large asymmetry in the Kingdom with the Netherlands as the biggest country was a given. "It is a fact that 98 per cent of the Kingdom is determined by the Netherlands." However, a consensus will have to be found because, as he put it, "Ultimately, everyone needs to feel comfortable with the dispute arrangement."

Plasterk said the role of the Kingdom Council of Ministers also had to be considered. "Now it is the Kingdom Council of Ministers that takes the decision on difficult matters. It takes careful consideration when you put that final decision in the hands of another entity."

MP Roelof van Laar of the governing Labour Party PvdA said that if the range was a problem, maybe parties should agree to start with a dispute arrangement in a smaller format. He called on Plasterk to solve the issue of the dispute arrangement at the Kingdom Conference. "That would be a great result," he said.

MP Wassila Hachchi of the Democratic Party D66 said it was "very important" to arrive at a solution and to make progress on this complex topic. "Otherwise we will be discussing this every year. We can't keep on arguing about this for years," she said.

MP Ronald van Raak of the Socialist Party (SP) said he fully supported a dispute arrangement, but objected to such an arrangement replacing the political decision-taking process.

"Aruba, Curaçao and St. Maarten want to have the interpretation of the guarantee function looked at. That is a matter with a rather high political content.

I think we should do something about expectation management. A dispute arrangement cannot be the solution for political differences of opinion," he said.

Plasterk agreed with Van Raak and said it remained important to make a political judgement when assessing a dispute. He mentioned the establishing of an Integrity Chamber for St. Maarten.

"In a case like this, one would also have to look at the issue of good governance. A dispute arrangement then would be not only about a procedural assessment. The Kingdom Council of Ministers is the body that takes the final decision. You don't want that taking place outside the reach of the Parliamentary control," he said.

He said that while he hoped to reach an agreement on the dispute arrangement with the Prime Ministers of Aruba, Curaçao and St. Maarten at the Kingdom Conference, the completion and fine-tuning of the arrangement would have to take place after that.

Plasterk was cautiously optimistic about the upcoming Kingdom Conference: "These conferences are useful for the relations. This will be the third Kingdom Conference. So far the talks have been positive, constructive. The conferences also provide an opportunity to have informal talks." He said it was useful to not get together only when there were problems.

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