How Will Taxpaying Anguillians Rescue the Bank Depositors?
In resolving the present banking crisis, the Government of Anguilla is stepping in to save the depositors at the local banks from suffering a ‘haircut’, or loss of their deposits. The exact method that Government will go about doing this is not clear to us yet, but the one thing we can be sure of is that it will cost us money. So, we might as well start thinking about some of the least painful ways we can meet the cost.
In recent months, Government has introduced an innovative (for Anguilla) way to put pressure on taxpayers who have defaulted in paying their taxes. Government has introduced an administrative gimmick, namely, a tax compliance certificate called a Certificate of Good Standing. [Never mind that the Certificate is ultra vires and would be struck down by a court if challenged. It is still a good idea, and only needs to be made legal by passing the required Regulation.]
The result is that if you want to either sell or purchase a plot of land, you must first pay Inland Revenue EC$50.00 and obtain a Certificate before your land forms will be accepted for registration. If you are an Executor of a Will and you are distributing the land to the beneficiaries, then both you and each of the beneficiaries must pay for and obtain a Certificate before you will be permitted to give them their devise or gift of land.
The Certificate certifies that you do not owe any Property Tax; Business Licence Fee; Water Rates; Lease tax; Accommodation Tax; Company Filing Fees; Tourism Marketing Levy; Interim Stabilisation Levy; or passed any dishonoured cheque payable to Government. Since (according to the Chief Auditor) Inland Revenue has no way of tracking most of the above taxes and levies, it is not certain how they arrive at a correct answer when they issue the Certificate. Maybe they just ask the taxpayer, and take his answer as the truth. Don’t laugh, most of government’s revenue collection proceeds on this system. But, I like the idea of a Certificate of Good Standing. It not only obliges you to go and pay your overdue taxes, it raises its own revenue.
I have some other suggestions for improving revenue collection and boosting the take-off of the economy. They are tentatively offered for your consideration. They are just my private, uninformed views. They may not all find favour with you. Indeed, you may have better ones.
1. Make the System Efficient
Begin keeping proper records. Government must insist that the Administration maintains proper records of receipts and expenditure in every Department. This has been a complaint of the Chief Auditor every year since 1976 when the Chief Auditor was first appointed. In the most recently published Chief Auditor’s Report, for 2011, the Chief Auditor explains at paragraph 4 why he cannot give Government’s accounts a clean auditor’s certificate. [If you have difficulty believing what follows, send me an emailed request at email@example.com, and I’ll email you a copy of his extraordinary and damning report.]
The Chief Auditor writes that the Government of Anguilla does not maintain adequate records to ensure the completeness and accuracy of the figures reported for advances and deposits; loans made from the consolidated fund; arrears of revenue; and remissions, write-offs and settlements. What he probably means is that, in the past, a Minister, working through his Permanent Secretary, could make payments that are unauthorised, to friends and associates. He could illegally forgive and write off taxes for important people who have influence with him.
The Chief Auditor complains at paragraph 5 of his 2011 Report that Government does not comply with the requirements of the Finance and Audit Act in relation to approving reallocation warrants. What this appears to mean is that in the past a Minister, acting through his Permanent Secretary, could, as an imaginary example, take money approved by the House of Assembly for maintenance of schools and apply that money to some unauthorised project such as the opening up of an archaeological site as part of the marketing programme of a nearby privately owned hotel. Or, they could, as another imaginary example, divert funds from the Hospital to develop an unauthorised but vote-getting ‘food court’. The existing penalty for such illegal diversions of government funds, if it should occur, is not applied.
Due to our inadequate record keeping, the Chief Auditor complains that he has not been able to check the accuracy of Inland Revenue’s records relating to Property Tax, Interim Stabilisation Levy, Accommodation Tax, Communication Levy, Bank Deposit Levy, Environmental Levy, or Customs Duties. He could not be sure that any of these taxes and levies had been calculated, far less paid, in accordance with the relevant laws. If he could not be sure, how is our Inland Revenue Department going to be sure so they can issue a valid Certificate of Good Standing?
Make the system of payments to government more efficient. At present, it sometimes takes hours to pay customs duty. You should no longer have to stand in line to hand over cash to pay any tax for any government goods or services. You should be able to present your debit card or smart phone to a machine and the amount is instantly paid. This is the way payments are made all over the world today. If the little old lady wants to pay cash, let her give the cash to her granddaughter, and let the granddaughter do it automatically for her.
2. Collect Unpaid Taxes
Reactivate the Internal Audit Department. I am told (I don’t know how to find out if it is true) that most of the present Internal Audit officers spend all day sitting at their desks shuffling paper. If it is true, that means they no longer go patrolling government departments to check on whether all receipts are being properly receipted, as was done in the past. They no longer check to ensure that all payments are properly backed by vouchers and necessary authorisations. It seems from the 2011 Report of the Chief Auditor that there must be a whiff of truth in this.
The solution is clear. If Internal Audit is under-staffed, transfer in some of the under-utilised public servants from over-staffed Departments. Give each of them a quota of delinquent taxpayers to visit each day, to warn them of dire consequences that are about to flow. If the internal auditors are out of condition and not fit enough to travel about on foot to enforce the tax laws, supply them with bicycles. Send them to the gym. I don’t care. Just make them do the work they are employed to do.
Enforce all present and existing taxes. Before new taxes are imposed, Government must enforce the existing ones. No one is going to believe Government is serious about new taxes if some of the established hotels are not paying Accommodation Tax and no effort is made to collect. Prosecute some of the more delinquent taxpayers, as an example to the others. Ensure several of them pay hefty fines. Get a few of them, and their directors if they are companies, sentenced to jail time.
3. Make all presently voluntary taxes obligatory.
Property Tax in Anguilla, for example, is what is called a voluntary tax. If you don’t pay it, nothing happens. There is no fine or imprisonment for failing to pay. Inland Revenue merely adds on 5% interest. They make no effort to collect it. If you never go the Land Registry to find out if you owe any property tax, you will never know. You are free to die of old age never knowing.
Most houses in Anguilla are unvalued anyway, and their owners never receive an invoice for property tax. In my case, it took me monthly visits for three years before I could get the Valuation Officer to come out to my house and value it for the purpose of calculating and paying the tax. Few people would be so obsessive about paying tax.
I own an acre of bare, undeveloped land in St Kitts since it was given as a wedding gift. Each year I get an invoice posted to Anguilla by St Kitts Inland Revenue reminding me to pay my property tax. In Anguilla, there is no tax on undeveloped land, only on houses.
4. Increase Existing Taxes
Double the stamp duty on dealings in real property. Presently, only the purchaser pays. The purchaser pays the price to the seller, pays the stamp duty of 5% of the purchase price, and pays the lawyer’s bill. The seller gets his money and walks away scot-free. Instead, make both the purchaser and seller pay stamp duty. If we abolish the fee on Aliens Landholding Regulation Licences (ALRL) on the sale of condominiums and other forms of real property to foreigners then we can easily double the stamp duty under the Stamp Act. The main revenue earner will be the multi-million dollar condominiums for which past governments have given away the ALRL fee that could be collected by future generations. Individual Anguillian property owners selling undeveloped land will hardly be affected as few of us are in the business of selling our land. Besides, in St Kitts-Nevis, as an example, the stamp duty on sale of real property is presently 10%, down from a previous 12%. So, increasing our stamp duty on property sales from the present 5% to 10% will not be arbitrary or unusual.
Past Governments have given away the ALRL fee on most Licences, so that fee presently raises very little revenue. The advantage of replacing the fee on Licences by doubling the stamp duty on sale of real property is that, while the ALRL fee is permitted by the Act to be waived by Government ministers, the stamp duty cannot be waived. It would take a law passed in the House of Assembly to waive stamp duty. Another advantage is that this 10% would flow from every sale of real property, particularly condominiums, whether to a foreigner or to a local. It would bring in far more revenue than the ALRL fee does.
Increase import duty on all motor cars to 100% of the value. One hundred percent customs duty is the level in most islands of the West Indies. It is higher in some. The present level in Anguilla is probably the lowest in the West Indies. If you can afford to buy a Hummer or a Rolls Royce car, you can afford to pay the duty. It should not matter that some people will complain that they cannot afford to purchase their dream car. We already have as many cars on the road as the system can manage.
5. Create New Revenue
Tax on restaurant bills. There is no restaurant tax in Anguilla, only in the USA. Some Anguillian restaurants presently cheat their customers on a regular basis by using US-printed restaurant bills which come with a line for “Tax”. The restaurant proprietor adds the 15% service charge on this line without crossing out the word “Tax”, or adding the words “Service charge”. The tourist then adds the gratuity of 15-20% to the final bill and the proprietor pockets that, sharing only the “tax” with his staff. Nothing goes to Government. The introduction of a real tax on restaurant bills will place no additional burden on tourists. Such a tax will, instead, keep restaurant owners honest. Food vans and small food vendors can be easily omitted by selecting the right words in the definition of the type of restaurant this tax applies to.
Tax all billboards and hoardings. The proliferation of roadside signs clutters and disfigures the appearance of Anguilla. It does not matter whether they are commercial, social, or charitable. They are all ugly and unnecessary. They could be banned as in Lanzarote, but there is no need to do so. Just tax them. Let the law provide that any advertisement, hoarding, poster, or billboard erected on any public or private property must pay a tax of $500.00 per year if it is below a certain size and $1,000.00 per year if it is above that size. Eight by four-foot billboards should be $5,000.00 per year. The numbers of LIME and Digicel hoardings along the roads would soon come down, significantly improving the view on a drive around the island. An exception could perhaps be made for a sign affixed to the building which houses the activity being advertised.
Introduce VAT at, say, 20% to replace customs duty. Presently in Anguilla, the only tax on consumables is customs duty charged on goods imported into Anguilla. Locally-made goods, and all local services, are free of any tax. Anguilla is one of the few islands left in the West Indies that does not have Value Added Tax (VAT), known in the USA as Sales Tax. Some countries have both VAT and customs duties, though most persons would agree that is unfair. VAT should be payable on all goods and services sold on Anguilla. In addition to goods, every lawyer’s bill, surveyor’s bill, medical bill, electrical bill, water bill, engineer’s bill, and architect’s bill, for a start, should be obliged to include VAT.
Start with the professions that are already computerised. Then, progress to the big stores and retail outlets that are already computerised. Gradually extend down to the smaller outlets, as the kinks in the system get ironed out, and all businesses are forced to become computerised. Place a hefty penalty for business person caught, either not charging and collecting it, or, worse, collecting it and pocketing it. Several hotels and rental villas do so at present with Accommodation Tax with impunity. It is no secret who they are. They should be vigorously prosecuted.
If we use VAT to replace customs duties, customs officers will not be redundant. They can be put in the Inland Revenue and Internal Audit Departments to work on collecting taxes.
If we keep customs duties in place, then we should increase the level of duty on luxury and unnecessary items. We could easily double the duty on alcohol and tobacco. We should double the duty on all luxury items. If I can afford to purchase a diamond necklace or a case of champagne or a Hummer car, I cannot be heard to complain about the duty.
VAT and customs duty are both optional taxes. If I don’t want to pay the duty and the VAT, I don’t have to. I am free to avoid both of them if I wish. I don’t have to buy the goods or the service.
Sell Permanent Residence. Only the USA imposes taxes based on citizenship. Most other countries tax income on the basis of residence. Anguilla has no tax on income, whether for citizens or residents. Permanent residence in Anguilla offers the possibility of a tax advantage to persons who are presently resident in high direct tax jurisdictions.
Many countries, including the USA and Britain, sell citizenship to major investors. Anguilla has no citizenship it can sell. But, Anguilla does presently offer a permanent residence stamp in the passport of major investors. Until now, this permanent residence stamp has been limited to persons who build a hotel or an expensive home on the island. The project could be developed and marketed to include investments in other ways that will more directly contribute to public revenue, such as the outright sale of permanent residence. Or it could be attached as a benefit to any investment over a certain amount.
It would not require any change of the law to make permanent residence an automatic entitlement of any foreigner purchasing a condominium. This is a mere policy decision. This would be an added attraction to purchasing a condominium in Anguilla. It would contribute directly to revenue and indirectly to employment.
Free-up our labour market: The Fair Labour Standards Act of Anguilla makes it a criminal offence to dismiss an employee without good cause. The process of dismissing an incompetent or insolent employee is fraught with danger, despite all the care taken to follow the rules. The result is that it is dangerous for a foreign investor to employ anyone he may one day want to terminate for incompetence or inability to do the job.
Anguilla’s labour market can be described as one which is closed by law. As in the failed economies of Greece and Italy, it is dangerous for a potential foreign employer to access labour in Anguilla. Greece and Italy also have repressive, closed labour laws and policies. We can see how this has brought their economies to their knees.
At present, no properly advised foreign investor would be so careless as to put his money into a labour-intensive project in Anguilla. After the collapse of Cinnamon Reef, Flag Luxury Resort, Malliouhana, and Viceroy Hotels, Anguilla is at risk of becoming internationally known as a cemetery for foreign capital. I had a client some years ago who described Anguilla as the modern equivalent of the wrecking crews of the West Indies of two hundred years ago. Instead of bringing ships to ruin on the reef by hanging lanterns in the coconut trees to imitate the lights of a town, and then pillaging the wreck and robbing the crew and passengers as it sinks, we draw investors in, encourage them to invest their money. We then Labour Department them and work permit them into bankruptcy and closure. If they attempt to fire a kitchen staff caught stealing a ham from the fridge, the Minister will inform them that their manager’s work permit will not be renewed unless they agree to rehire the thief, who just happens to be related to a good political supporter. It has happened more than once to my knowledge.
One solution to this employment-hazard problem is to make labour in Anguilla free to hire and fire, whether local or foreign. The result will likely be a boom in investment. Opportunities for Anguillians will increase, not decrease.
Enforce existing Aliens Landholding Regulation Licences. It is a term of the Act, and a condition of each Licence agreed to by the holder, that one of the penalties for breach of the Licence is forfeiture of the property to the Crown. Forfeiture of property as a penalty under a law is an exception to the constitutional protection of property rights.
There are many properties in Anguilla subject to a Licence which have been in breach for many years, and are being held for speculative purposes. Some of these projects are condominium-type projects which would have offered employment and contributed to revenue by way of the stamp duty on sales after the promised construction. Instead, the so-called ‘developers’ are left to laugh at Anguilla’s laws and illegally and in breach of their licences they are sitting on the undeveloped land, hoping to sell it for a huge profit.
The Licences should be enforced. The proprietors should be forced to sell these properties to someone else who can complete an approved development on them within a specified timeframe. Failure to sell in the specified time should result in forfeiture. As for the scandal of the Anguillian Belongers who front for aliens in breach of the Immigration Act and the Aliens Landholding Regulation Act, they should all be vigorously prosecuted. We all know who they are, but we smile knowingly, and turn our faces.
28 November 2015
1 December 2015: Revised to clarify that the main increase in revenue from sale of land is expected to come from condominium sales to non-Anguillians; to change “Impose New Taxes” to “Create New Revenue”; and to add “Sell Permanent Residence”; “Free our labour market”; and “Enforce existing Aliens Landholding Regulation Licences.”