The government’s decision to increase its travel and subsistence budget by $4 million was the result of a need for emergency flights to handle relief efforts, including “medical crises”, on islands impacted by Hurricane Dorian, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest said yesterday.
“The aftermath of Hurricane Dorian required a number of services to be increased to provide necessary relief and recovery assistance to the affected areas,” Turnquest said.
“Public officers from New Providence, across a range of government agencies, traveled back and forth between Grand Bahama and Abaco to conduct a range of damage assessments, vector surveillance and monitoring of forest and marine environments.
“The increases were also associated with emergency flights from Abaco for various medical crises, which necessitated extra travel rotations for medical personnel. Additionally, rotations were increased for immigration, police and defense force officers to those islands.”
According to its 2019 Fiscal Strategy Report, the government’s budgetary allocation for travel and subsistence for the 2019/2020 fiscal year is set to increase by just over $4 million.
In a table of expenses Financial Secretary Marlon Johnson provided to Perspective, $954,967 is allocated for travel by various ministries and departments; $36,854 is allocated for the Ministry of Health’s emergency flights from Abaco; and $8,000 is allocated for expenses related to customs officers’ clearance of hurricane relief supplies in South Florida.
The document notes that $3,017,195 is allocated for per diem incidentals and accommodations for public officers and uniformed staff.
Yesterday, Turnquest defended the per diem allocation.
“Consequently, the overall totals for subsistence – which includes per diem, incidentals and accommodation payments – increased in line with the aforementioned increase in travel,” he said.
“As a result, costs were accrued for technical staff conducting assessments, medical and uniformed personnel servicing those islands. Subsistence payments also compensated customs officers responsible for the clearance of hurricane-related goods and supplies in South Florida.”
Asked how much is the government’s daily per diem, the deputy prime minister said, “The government has set per diem rates, hardship allowances and other allowances. Remember this amount is being spread across many civil servants, including police, defense force, customs, immigration, administrative persons, port officers, etc.; many people and over the next six months.
Helicopter travel, according to a document, included costs to a U.S.-based firm at a rate of $110,000 per day for six hours of flight time per aircraft, per day.
Any flight time over six hours would be billed at $10,500 per hour.
On Monday, Progressive Liberal Party Leader Philip Brave Davis said the government made the wrong decision by increasing its travel budget.
“It’s a wrong decision at the wrong time when this country is facing a kind of financial gloom and crisis to be able to increase the budget by $4 million for travel,” Davis told The Nassau Guardian.
He added, “First of all, why is this necessary to increase your travel budget? And secondly, I would’ve said that they be true to their campaign rhetoric that these travels should be accounted for.”
In recent months, the government has come under fire for not disclosing the costs of travels for the prime minister and other members of the government.
In January 2018, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis committed to disclose ministers’ travel costs.
However, that never happened.
According to The Guardian’s records, there have been nearly a dozen trips to foreign countries by Cabinet ministers since Dorian struck Abaco and Grand Bahama in early September.