Senior Political Reporter
Finance Minister Colm Imbert yesterday announced an early Christmas gift for public servants in what some called a relief budget.
Imbert announced that some 37,000 public servants will get their backpay from negotiations by Christmas and an increase in minimum wage from $17.50 to $20.50 from January 2024.
Students who require assistance will also receive a $1,000 school supply grant.
Government has also mandated the Police Commissioner to triple the number of police recruits in 2024 from 300 to 1,000, and action will be taken on the foreign exchange supply issue.
These were some of the concessions presented by Imbert in the 2024 Budget package in Parliament yesterday, in an address lasting four hours and eight minutes
“In this year, 2024, we did not feel that we should impose any further burdens on our citizens, but rather, we should provide some relief in key areas to those at the lower end of the scale,” Imbert said in his ninth Budget.
“In 2015, we said ‘Let’s do this,’ in 2024, we are doing this!”
The 2024 Budget is $59.209 billion, more than the original 2023 Budget which was $57.6B. This year’s Budget was themed “Building Capacity for Diversification and Growth Within a World of Challenges.”
Education took the top allocation—$8.022 billion. National Security received $6.912B, with Imbert promising to increase the T&T Police Service’s funding in the mid-year review if necessary.
The Tobago House of Assembly, which requested $4.5B, received $2.585B—$64m more than its 2023 allocation.
Imbert based the budget on an oil price of US$85 and gas price of US$5 per mmbtu—less than the prices for the 2023 Budget. The projected fiscal deficit is $5.197B.
Imbert said, “Fiscal measures will focus on improving the well-being of every individual in our society so that they can reach their full potential. We’re investing in our people.”
Proposing action to minimise T&T’s socio-economic imbalance and stimulate consumer spending aimed at economic expansion, he added, “To achieve this objective, I propose to increase the minimum wage by 17 per cent, or $3 per hour, from $17.50 to $20.50 per hour ... effective from January 1, 2024.”
Imbert said this will help almost 200,000 workers and increase the monthly take-home pay by over $500 per month for workers who work a basic 40-hour week and earn the minimum wage.
“For those who currently work a 12-hour shift at the minimum wage for a six-day week, like some security guards, this will increase their monthly take-home pay by over $900 per month,” Imbert added.
To further assist families in need, he said in 2024, Government will provide a school supplies and book grant of $1,000 based on a means test, which will assist at least 65,000 children at primary and secondary schools.
Imbert said Government will bring the 37,000 public sector workers who accepted Government’s four per cent negotiation offer up to their new salary levels immediately.
“I’m also giving these workers an undertaking that all ministries and agencies involved will be provided with the necessary funds to pay this $1.0 billion in backpay by Christmas 2023, and I’m requesting all permanent secretaries and accounting officers to immediately start preparing the paperwork to achieve this deadline for these payments,” Imbert added.
He also said the one-time lump sum payment of $4,000 will be tax-exempt for the 1,700 people who retired (2014-16) compulsorily, voluntarily, with permission, or on the grounds of ill health.
Foodbox makes a return
Apart from tripling police recruits ahead, Imbert announced substantial budgetary allocations for TTPS vehicles, equipment, vessels—and the establishment of “trusted and vetted police units within the police service, staffed by higher-paid officers of proven integrity”.
The market box programme for poor and vulnerable citizens will also be reintroduced. Beneficiaries will be identified from the Food Card database, among other areas. The Social Development Ministry will restructure the Food Card Programme to include a mandatory market box component, he said.
Imbert said WASA’s refurbishing and upgrading of major water treatment facilities will improve the reliability of supply to over 300,000 people in northeast Trinidad and 400,000 in south Trinidad.
Foodbox makes a return
Imbert made it clear that property tax collection begins in 2024, to be collected by the 14 regional corporations. He said he has received the residential property valuation roll for T&T and this will be sent to the Inland Revenue Division, which will set in motion procedural frameworks for collecting residential property taxes “in the first instance”.
He said tax will be used by corporations for goods/services and development programmes—not personnel expenditure. Law will be made to ensure the money isn’t used for the wrong purpose. He expected that more than 50 per cent of all residential properties will pay property taxes between $540 and $1,080 annually.
In WASA’s new business model, dependence on government subventions—which between 2019-2023 was $8.118 billion—will be reduced, he added. In the process, WASA’s net deficit is expected to substantially narrow “following completion of WASA’s price review by the Regulated Industries Commission”.
Imbert, who delivered a glowing economic report on T&T’s performance, said unemployment has dropped in 2023. He said T&T was the only country in the region and Latin America with an improving economic outlook. Imbert thanked Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley for his “support and understanding”.
“Before the presentation of this budget, speculation was rife as to what it would contain. All sorts of scenarios played out in the public domain, most of them totally uninformed ...” Imbert said.
Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar delivers her reply from 1.30 pm Friday.
$95M boost for TTPS to tackle crime
Speaking at length on T&T's safety and the TTPS, Finance Minister Colm Imbert said, "We remain particularly disturbed at the untenable level of murders within our society. Crime and violence remain pressing and troubling problems that severely undermine our citizens' welfare."
He said the "wholly unacceptable incidence of murder" is an area of primary concern requiring urgent action, and in light of the number of guns and illegal drugs entering T&T, Government is enhancing resource capacity and capability through strengthening of border-control capacity.
He noted that the total number of active police officers is constantly affected by mandatory retirement and/or resignation of officers and by the number of officers
on vacation or other forms of leave.
"Accordingly, to bring the Police Service back up to full strength, we have mandated the Commissioner of Police to triple the intake of police recruits in 2024, from the usual annual intake of 300 recruits a year to 1,000 recruits in 2024.
"To facilitate this substantial increase, a hybrid approach to the training of recruits will be employed using facilities outside of the Police Academy. The Ministry of Youth and
National Service will make available the use of the Chaguaramas Convention Centre, now under renovation ... a number of schools will also be used after regular hours to train the additional police recruits."
Imbert said the TTPS will also employ increasing use of social media to enhance communication between law enforcement and citizens, to improve interdiction of crimes such as home invasions.
The Budget includes additional support mechanisms for the TTPS - $80m million for new vehicles and equipment over and above the 2023 allocations.
"This will allow police to expand and establish more community patrols to give the police greater presence and visibility within communities and citizens a greater sense of comfort," he said.
A further $15m is allocated for a Riverine Police Unit at the Carenage Police Station. This is for the design and commencement of construction of a jetty at Carenage and acquisition of up to 10 fast and nimble inshore vessels to patrol major rivers and inshore areas, which are areas of criminal activity, he said.
He said Government recognised that, in many instances, the lack of trust between the police and the community constrains effective crime intervention.
"The TTPS is now establishing trusted and vetted police units within the police service, staffed by higher-paid officers of proven integrity. We're aiming at improving police accountability, re-establishing trust and credibility between the police and the communities and ultimately, serving to establish and maintain order, as well as to
guarantee stability, safety and security. These units have collaborated with the United States authorities to develop and implement an anti-crime agenda."
He added, "To detect the importation of illegal arms, new modern scanners are being procured for the ports, bonded warehouses and transit sheds. We've awarded a contract at an estimated cost of $90 million for the supply, delivery, installation and commissioning of four large-scale, non-intrusive inspection scanners for shipping containers, which we expect to deploy at the ports of Port-of-Spain and Point Lisas. We expect these scanners will be in place in 2024."
Sixteen handheld scanners are also being obtained by the Customs and Excise Division, he said.
Imbert said apart from T&T's cape-class-patrol boats, Government is ensuring the operational effectiveness of the 12 Damen patrol vessels through the provision of logistics support and maintenance services.
Imbert thanked the US for donating naval assets to T&T's Coast Guard. These will secure T&T's riverine inlets, which are being used by smugglers to import narcotics and illegal guns, he said.