In 1998 the People's United Party promised ten thousand homes that never materialized; in 2011 the Prime Minister Hon. Dean Barrow delivered over 10,000 homes to deserving home owners within three months, without having promised them. Firstly ,the Prime Minister announced in his Independence Day address in September of 2011 the writing off $62.6 million worth of mortgages to homeowners, who had mortgages with the Housing and Planning Department; an initiative that affected 9,200 mortgage holders, and in his New Year's message, the Prime Minister announced the writing off of another 782 mortgages with the Social Security Board.
Well, over 10,000 homeowners are now in possession of their homes free of any mortgage, and totally unencumbered. Fundamental to these initiatives was the primal objective to ease the financial burden on Belizeans, whether red or blue, yellow or any other colour.
It cannot be forgotten that those who will benefit the most are persons belonging to the People's United Party simply because they were the only persons who could have qualified; given the partisan nature of the selection process, for a mortgage prior to 2008. Most poignant still is the fact that even under those circumstances prospective homeowners were required to pay for a house and land that was front loaded with corruption so that the land, construction, and financing of the house were all done with a singularly corrupt motive in mind, a motive that was executed to the fullest; PUP corruption in full stride Ralph and Said, like the Japanese kamikaze, carelessly careening round the curves of corruption.
Those who were unfortunate to have benefited from either a Housing and Planning Department mortgage, under the PUP,or a Social Security mortgage, were secure - unbeknownst to them, in a securitization hustle. Mortgages travelled from collector to collector as they were bundled up and sold off in the international markets. As faith would have it, the only thing secured in securitization was that every new collector added on his legal and administrative fees so that mortgage holders saw their payments go up; while their poorly constructed houses on over priced lands descended into decay.
Eight miles on the Western Highway, Fresh Pond in Burrell Boom, Finca Solana in Corozal, developments in Santa Elena, San Ignacio and San Pedro, are just a few examples where corruption and abuse coalesced; where millions were spent. Lands were acquired from favoured PUP's at inflated prices, PUP unqualified contractors were hired who bought cheap material and hired cheaper labour still, so that by the time the house was complete, the government knew then as the UDP know now, that they would be selling houses with one hand, and taking it away with the other. Anyone who reads a newspaper will know that week after week, the hundreds of foreclosed houses speaks to a nation and people under the pressure and strain of PUP corruption.
The toilet paper flowed from Belize Investment Management Company, BIMCO, a subsidiary of Social Security Board, to L & J's collection agency, a Dickie hustle, to St. James Building Society, and then Alliance Bank, a Glen hustle, to Government of Belize, and then back to Social Security Board.
It was the United Democratic Party and the Hon. Prime Minister Hon. Dean Barrow decided to announce in his New Year's message that the burden on the Belizean people must end. There is no longer a promise of 10,000 houses, over 10,000 Belizeans now have their homes.
The Prime Minister New Year's gift to 780 homeowners was mortgage forgiveness.
For sure, the UDP has made much political mileage out of it - and even though detractors warn about vote buying and insider trading - for the persons who fall within the 50 thousand dollar or less bracket, it is a saving grace.
Many of these folks have had their mortgages bouncing around for a decade or more going from BIMCO to a Building Society to St. James, even to commercial banks - often times without them even know. All those paper transactions were part of the PUP's housing boom - which, in a silent way, led to Belize's own little subprime crisis with toxic mortgages being bundled off into securitization schemes.
That's another very long story for another time - for homeowners the story is no end of month mortgage to pay. For retired teacher Eric Neal that means 480 dollars he doesn't have to pay every month.
He thought he wasn't included in the program because he pays at Heritage Bank, but on Wednesday the Prime Minister announced on radio that he would be included - he went to the UDP headquarters to thank the PM - whom we had just interviewed.
We spoke to Neal about what it means:
Jules Vasquez "When did you first take it out, with whom and what route did it travel to end up now at the bank?"
Eric Neal, retired teacher "It was BIMCO first on the northern road, then from there when the other government took they demolish BIMCO and then they went to St. James and the from there it went to another one in between but then it ended up at the Alliance Bank then now Heritage Bank. So that was the route it took."
Jules Vasquez "And so throughout the history of this loan you've paid all those different agencies?"
Eric Neal "Constantly, I paid faithfully."
Jules Vasquez "And so you no longer have to pay that?"
Eric Neal "No more."
Jules Vasquez "How does that translate? What does that mean to you?"
Eric Neal "It means everything in this world to me. I mean gee whiz! The balance of the loan is being written off. It's between $8,000 - $10,000 I guess. That's a heck of a lot you know Jules."
Alfonso Noble, Guardian Newspaper "$480.00 a month. What will you do with that money now?"
The House of Representatives is being convened for next Friday and speculation is that the prime minister may drop a bomb. PM Dean Barrow will also seek House approval to write off over seventeen million dollars in housing loans with the Social Security Board. According to the PM, the government will spend in the range of six million dollars to acquire the loans made to over seven hundred persons, each worth fifty thousand dollars and less. And now according to one report, top management and staff members of the social security will also be included in the pool. The staff members got loans at concessionary rates-eight percent on the declining balance-which means that they pay lower interest rates than other mortgage holders. The loans are granted to the staff from the contributions paid by all workers and employers. And according to the report, some select staff members who owe above fifty-thousand dollars will also qualify in the write-off, including mangers at the very top. They are beating the system by going to commercial banks with S.S.B. recommendations to get loans to pay off any amount owed above the ceiling of fifty thousand dollars. We called Social Security Board today but no one was available to comment on the report.
In the Prime Minister's new year's message, the Prime Minister announced that Government would be buying over from the social security those mortgages with a balance under fifty thousand dollars. For those whose debts are being forgiven, it is a grand gesture and sure to be welcomed. However, there has been criticism from sectors of the society saying that it is the taxpayer who is getting the raw end of the deal and it amounts only to an election ploy. The Prime Minister had told the media that while the value of the mortgages being forgiven is 17 million dollars, that is just the face value as the real value is approximately 6.9 million dollars. Yesterday, we spoke to Minister John Saldivar who addressed the write off issue and spoke about how many people will benefit.
Hon. John Saldivar Well for sure, the figure that we have come up with now is ten thousand, but it a combination of a write-off that was done a few months ago, right after September 21st, when we first wrote-off the sixty-two million dollars in mortgages that were with the Ministry of Housing. That write-off affected over nine-thousand two-hundred home owners, or mortgages holders. We are now doing the write-off of seven-hundred and eighty-two loans from the Social Security Board and so in total that brings the total amount of home owners or mortgages holders up to ten-thousand that have now been relieved of those monthly payments. If we look then at an average monthly payment of four to five-hundred dollars, you are looking at a possible significant impact in terms of the purchasing power of those home owners who now do not have to pay their mortgages.
The Minister also had some advise for home owners, saying that people need to manage their loans properly.
Hon. John Saldivar In all of this, what we certainly have to do is advise those who have benefitted from this program to use the extra cash wisely and not to see this fritter away with reckless decisions. It is a significant contribution that has been made by the government to these ten thousand mortgages holders and we certainly urge them to guard this new asset with serious responsibility.
The government will write off over $17million worth of Mortgages owed to the Social Security Board by 782 persons without actually spending a cent, Prime Minister Dean Barrow told The Reporter on Wednesday, January 4.
PM Barrow said about 60% of the mortgages are non-performing; therefore, government would barter with the SSB for the loans at a discounted value of $6.9million.
SSB's Chief Executive Officer Merlene Bailey told the Reporter that in 2005 the mortgages, which originally belonged to the Ministry of Housing but were consolidated and sold to the SSB, were used as mortgage-backed securities with the Royal Merchant Bank of Trinidad (RMBT).
Under the standard principles of securitization, the mortgages should have been owned by RMBT and taken off SSB's books, as mortgagees would "technically" be making payments to the RMBT.
However, for whatever reason, SSB maintained the risks and the then PUP government paid off SSB's obligation to RMBT in full.
This indebted SSB to the government for about $469,000 per month or upon government's request.
Bailey explained that by the end of the current fiscal year, March 2012, the total payment due to the government would have grown from $9 to about $11 million.
Therefore, trade off relieves the SSB of a substantial portion of their obligation, leaving them with a balance of about $4million for the amount due at the end of this fiscal year.
Nevertheless, it does help with a debt that the SSB has to pay up until December 2013, Bailey said.
The overall initiative has been criticized by some as a stunt to gain political mileage, at the expense of tax payers' money.
It is also believed that the government had borrowed the money that was used to pay off RMBT; therefore, leaving the question of the status of that loan.
But, PM Barrow maintained that the goal is to liberate the poor and the middle the burden, while giving them more money to spend that can help stimulate the Belizean economy.
Mortgages of $50,000 or less will be written off, and the matter will be taken to parliament so as to officially implement the program.
He denied that it is a partisan or vote-buying manoeuvre, saying that it will benefit everyone, even those of the Opposition, People's United Party.
House meets Friday - $7 mil in loan write-offs to be tabled
Official sources indicate that the Barrow administration will move on Friday, January 13, 2012, to pass a write-off motion for nearly 800 mortgages of $50,000 or less, following a New Year's Day announcement by Prime Minister Barrow signaling that the debts currently held through the Belize Social Security Board, which had purchased the loans from the Ministry of Housing, would be forgiven.
We understand that the motion for roughly $7 million in write-offs for mostly non-performing loans is not quite ready and is still undergoing drafting by Government's legal counsel, Gian Ghandi. The matter is also expected to be discussed at Parliamentary Caucus tomorrow.
Additionally, the government is getting ready to introduce new legislation that would put into effect reduced electricity rates which are expected to be announced in the next few days.
Barrow had also said in his New Year's Day address that the day after the new rates are announced, the House would change the laws to ensure the rate reduction takes immediate effect.
At Friday's House Sitting, reports of the Social Security Board and the Central Bank are also scheduled to be tabled, along with proposed changes to the Representation of the People's Act, which governs how politicians are elected.
Amandala tried to reach Prime Minister Barrow for his comments on Friday's meeting, but when we contacted him, he told us he was unavailable and in a meeting. At press time, he had not returned our call.
SSB chair to convene emergency meeting over loan write-off controversy
Social Security Board (SSB) chairman Lois Young told Amandala today, Monday, that she is convening an emergency board meeting following reports that SSB staff, including senior management, who have SSB mortgages have been trying to borrow from banks to reduce their debt so that their mortgages would fall under the $50,000 ceiling for a recently announced government write-off program.
In his New Year's Day message, Prime Minister Dean Barrow had indicated that the Government would purchase millions in loans from the SSB and then proceed to write them off, giving homeowners more financial leverage.
The move has been criticized in some quarters as electioneering, using taxpayer dollars, since municipal elections are due in March and general elections, due in 2013, may be called early.
Young told Amandala that the list of persons who would benefit from the SSB write-off was closed since last October 31, and new persons cannot get on the SSB list.
She also said that any move by SSB staff to take advantage of the write-off would, in her view, be considered "insider trading," which would be wrong.
She said that if SSB staff were to be added to the list, it would mean that persons already on the list to benefit from the write-off would have to be taken off.
According to Young, such a move cannot be approved by the SSB and a meeting would be held by this Wednesday with SSB's Chief Executive Officer, Merlene Bailey-Martinez, and the board, to discuss the matter.
P.U.P. wants investigation into S.S.B.'s write offs
The Social Security Board is scheduled to meet on Wednesday to deal with reports that select staff members have found a way to benefit from the write-off of mortgages of up to fifty thousand dollars offered by the Prime Minister. We first reported about the allegations of insider trading among staff members, including top management, on Friday. Select staff members reportedly were reducing loans above fifty thousand dollars to be able to qualify for the write-off. The opposition picked up the issue today in a release alleging that certain staff members have been promised that once the balances of fifty thousand dollars and lesser amounts are forgiven by GOB, they will be further facilitated with SSB staff loans, at concessionary rates, to pay back commercial banks. The P.U.P. goes further to allege that the C.E.O. is among those who have reduced their loans to be able to qualify for the debt forgiveness even though there's a requirement of five years employment to qualify for a housing mortgage at the concessionary rates offered to S.S.B. staff. Says the P.U.P. release: The "Friends and Family" plans coupled with the "Feast or Famine" approach of this U.D.P. administration is bankrupting our nation, morally and fiscally; and Belizeans deserve better. On behalf of the people of Belize, as the constitutional Opposition, the P.U.P. demands an immediate investigation of the entire scheme of S.S.B. mortgage debt write off." Prime Minister Dean Barrow announced the write-off in his New Year's address. About seven hundred and eighty mortgage holders would qualify for the debt forgiveness.
In his interview with Love News also expressed concern over allegations that some people are abusing the government write-off of social security mortgages intended for those who cannot afford to pay off their housing loans.
Francis Fonseca - Leader of the Opposition "We certainly welcome any relief to homeowners and persons who are holding mortgages with the Government of Belize, Social Security Board so we welcome that relief for them, many of these people were not in a position and have not been in a position for a very long time particularly over the past four years to meet their payment so we have no argument with government writing off those loans. In fact it was the People's United Party that for the most part many of these individuals were able to own their home through the efforts of the People's United Party, were able to get those mortgages through the People's United Party. What we are very concerned about right now is what we are hearing coming out of Social Security Board is that a very select few members of the top level staff of the Social Security are in fact seeking to circumvent the rules and seeking to put themselves in a position to benefit from this loan program and the write off of these loans. It is our understanding that certain select staff members have been given the opportunity to, because they have loans over $50,000 and would not therefore qualify under the loan program for a right-off. They have gone to private commercial banks to get loans that will allow them to reduce their balances below 50,000 or to 50,000 to qualify under the loan program and therefore have that remaining balance of 50,000 or less written off. On top of that it is our understanding that it may be that those individual that who have now gone to the private commercial bank to get a loan for example, let's say your loan outstanding balance was $80,000.00 so you went to a commercial bank and you got a loan for $31,000.00 so that your balance will be $49,000.00, that $49,000.00 would be written off, you would then have a loan of $31,000.00 to a private commercial bank. It is our understanding that there is even consideration to have new loans to Social Security given to those individuals at lower interest rates so that they could then use those loans to go and pay the private commercial banks. It seems like a web almost, it is a real travesty, a web sort of conspiracy to allow a select few members of staff to benefit from this program which as we understand it was to target low income individuals who are not able to properly meet their loan obligations."
DIRECTOR OF IMMIGRATION RESPONDS TO ALLEGATIONS
There have been allegations of mass naturalizations of non-Belizeans. Earlier this week Vision Inspired by the People issued a release condemning what they said were a number of irregularities in the process. Today Leader of the Opposition People's United Party, Francis Fonseca, told Love News today that the legal process ought to be followed in getting Belizean citizenship, but the information that his party has received is that this is not being done.
Francis Fonseca - Leader of the Opposition "What we see taking place and the information that has reached us at the People's United Party is that last week for example, last week Friday the television cameras saw it, we had over 400 persons going to the George Price Center in Belmopan, being sworn in as Belizean citizens. It is our understanding, the reports that we have gotten suggests that many of these applicants, many of these new Belizeans citizens did not meet the criteria for being Belizean citizens. Many of them did not present the proper documents that are required for you to become a Belizean citizen. Many of them as we understand it have not lived in Belize for the required period of time to become or qualify to be a Belizean citizen so there was not a proper vetting process. In fact our information suggests that in fact many of these applicants presented their documents for the first time at the George Price Center where the Minister of Immigration Carlos Perdomo was present signing and approving these applications. Our information is that in some cases there was absolutely no vetting of these applicants; so it seems that what is taking place is a sort of complete wholesale giveaway of Belizean citizenship for the purpose of padding the electoral list and helping certain constituencies. As we understand it many of those persons who were sworn in last week were targeted for divisions in the north of Belize, Corozal South East, Orange Walk Central, Orange Walk East, in some blatant attempt to assist those representatives of the UDP in that area. We find this absolutely disgusting, it is wrong, it is improper and we certainly hope that public officers are not engaging in any misconduct in the execution of their duties as it relates to this matter. As we understand if from the Immigration Department there is an intention to swear in an additional 480 individuals this Friday on the 13th of January and again the proper vetting has not taken place and again it seems that there is going to be another round of abuse and misuse and misapplication of the process, granting Belizean citizenship to persons who do not properly qualify to become citizens of Belize."
Today Director of the Immigration Department Ruth Meighan went on record to say that there is nothing underhanded going on in the registration of new Belizeans.
Ruth Meighan - Director, Immigration Department "What we are doing, the Immigration Department processes applications for nationality throughout the year and these people have to meet certain requirements for them to qualify to become nationals of Belize. The issue is we are processing a lot of applications now but they all must meet the requirement so there is no illegal activities going on in the Immigration Department.
Patrick Jones - Reporter I understand that last week there were two swearing in for people who just got their nationality, is that so?
Ruth Meighan - Director, Immigration Department "No, we had one swearing in ceremony last Friday. We have been having ceremony, since I came to the Immigration Department we have been having swearing in ceremony so there is nothing unusual about that either."
Meighan says that the process of obtaining Belizean nationality is simple and straightforward and that the integrity of the system is being upheld by her department.
Ruth Meighan - Director, Immigration Department "Basic requirements according to the law where the person, they have two section under the regulation where you can apply, you can apply for nationality through marriage and you can apply through registration which is section 10 and section 11 of the law. Under section 11 the person is required to live in Belize for at least one year after marriage but that is an administrative policy that is put in place. For section 10 you have to be living for five years in addition to that you have to show legal residence. We have looked at those persons who have ordinary residence, who have been able to establish stay in Belize saying that they have been working and provide us with temporary work permits, or they may have been able to establish through school records or through whatever legal document they can provide us, that is what we use to verify stay in Belize and the person must be living in Belize for at least five years.
Patrick Jones - Reporter So basically the concerns as raised by VIP is not valid at this time.
Ruth Meighan - Director, Immigration Department "I don't know what the concern is, I really haven't heard it other than little rumors here and there but as far as the Immigration Department is concerned, we are processing applications and we are doing it through the legal process, there isn't anything illegal going on in the immigration department."
Meighan says that in the period of just over a year since she has been at the Immigration Department, there have been a little over five hundred persons who have utilized the legal process to obtain Belizean nationality.
Chairman Accuses SSB Staffers Of "Insider Trading"
Social Security's Board of Directors will have an emergency meeting tomorrow to discuss what Chairman Lois Young calls "insider trading."
She's referring to confirmed reports that Social Security employees, including senior management, have made loans to bring down their mortgage balances to under fifty thousand dollars - that they get into the Prime Minister's mortgage forgiveness programme.
It's a once in a lifetime opportunity to get fifty thousand dollars deducted from your mortgage debt. But today, the Chairman told us that for SSB employees to qualify themselves for eligibility after the plan was circulated internally in late 2011 - violates the spirit of the government's proposal - and constitutes what she says can only be called insider trading.
She says that any staff member's mortgage balances which were reduced to fifty thousand dollars or less after the date when the first request was made by government will be included in a list which will be reviewed by the Board tomorrow.
She says she is concerned about people at Social Security who got wind of the proposals and may have taken advantage of that information.
And the PUP is also concerned. The party issued a release implicating senior management today stating that very senior members of management have positioned themselves to benefit from the program.
We called CEO of SSB, Merlene Bailey Martinez who told us she was driving and could not speak - but assured us that the board will deal with the matter tomorrow.
The PUP release adds that quote, "certain 'select' members of staff of the SSB have obtained loans at commercial banks and other lending institutions in Belize, to pay down these mortgages, to take their balances below $50,000 in order to benefit as well."
The release concludes, quote, "If this program was ever meant to help struggling Belizeans, then what it is alleged is happening at the SSB, could only be described as a travesty."
The PUP has demanded an immediate investigation of the entire scheme of the SSB mortgage debt write off and calls upon Board members especially those representing the Private Sector and the Trade Unions to speak out on the matter.
PM Says SSB "Insider Trading" Will Not Be Tolerated
Social Security's mortgage forgiveness program was supposed to be a populist, pro-poor initiative - but it has turned into a political hot potato with the disclosure that SSB senior managers were participating in what the chairman has called insider trading.
That means they used the insider knowledge they had as employees to bring down their mortgage balances so that it would be included in the forgiveness programme - and that - we are reliably informed - extends right up to the CEO, Merlene Bailey Martinez who - according to our information - brought down her balance in November.
As the PM put it, they "tried a thing" - but, simply put, it didn't and won't work:
Prime Minister Dean Barrow - Prime Minister of Belize "My position is that the Government of Belize has paid for - I believe - 782 mortgages. The list of the persons that were in the $50,000 and below category is a list that we have and have had for some time. There is no way any SSB staff member, who was not on that list can now get on to the list in consequence of having paid down to try and get their loans under $50,000. From the time I learned of the situation, I indicated to the CEO that Government would not pay a penny more than the agree purchase price for the agreed number of mortgages."
Jules Vasquez "The Opposition has alleged that CEO Merlene Bailey Martinez is among those who, subsequent to the announcement or some knowledge, reduced the balance of her mortgage to bring it into that $50,000 threshold."
Prime Minister Dean Barrow "Well, all I will say that is Mrs. Bailey has confirmed to me that she is not proposing her name for even any kind of consideration in terms of whatever might the Board decision, with respect to persons who did that, so I will leave it there. She says that she is not in the 'mix' at all, in terms of the decision that the SSB Board will have to make with respect to persons who might have paid down."
Jules Vasquez "But, you're only taking it half way. I'm saying that isn't it a fundamental breach of ethics if she, as CEO, tried to cease upon an opportunity, in which the spirit of it was for the poor and middle class."
Prime Minister Dean Barrow "But I'm saying, don't you first have to ascertain from her whether she did in fact paid down. I wouldn't want to comment on that until you've had a chance to speak with her. I believe that I do know the answer."
Jules Vasquez "I spoke to her and she wouldn't - she said that she was driving."
Prime Minister Dean Barrow "I would prefer that you wait until the SSB meeting is over because clearly, the SSB Board will require a sort of tracking list or records that will track the transactions with respect to all SSB staff member loans."