San Pedro Businesses air concerns

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 10, No. 38            October 19, 2000

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An urgent meeting of several members of the San Pedro business community convened last Friday to discuss their concerns over the recent disaster of Hurricane Keith. Area Representative Patty Arceo took part and listened to the approximately 30 people who attended the gathering on the deck of Caruso Restaurant.

    The major points of the discussion focused on: 1) Utilities - specifically electricity, water and telephone and where the community stands on these so far. Area Representative Arceo assured the attendees that information would be published and broadcast regarding these areas. 2) Duty-exempt and 3) Sales Tax-exempt status for materials/goods that are brought in to rebuild and for relief supplies coming in for individual businesses; 4) Import permits for goods needed to quickly rebuild the business industry; and 5) Taxes - specifically Hotel, Business and Sales Tax and whether a grace period would be in effect for businesses on the islands. Regarding these concerns the Area Representative attempted to contact the Minister of Finance and was informed he was out of office until the following week. She recommended that in the interim, the group write letters to the individual offices stating their needs for grace periods and permits. (Following this recommendation, the San Pedro chapter of the Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA) promptly wrote letters to this effect. This reporter further discovered that the Registrar of Hotels, Mr. Victor Espat, has extended the due date for September hotel taxes until the end of October. In speaking with Commissioner of Taxes, Mrs. Carmen Barrow, she informed the San Pedro Sun that there is no official grace period, but that their office is not pressuring people either. They have had representatives on the island, so they understand the situation and the circumstances people are facing. She recommended that people file Sales Tax forms as soon as they are able and to include a letter of explanation, so that the 5% per day penalty may be waived. Having contacted a representative from the Department of Income Tax, the San Pedro Sun learned they will  not be charging the late penalty on taxes due for the month of September. It was recommended that businesses file as quickly as possible and mail it to Income Tax Department as they will not be coming out to the island this month. They hope to be on island for their regular dates in November. Additionally, NEMO announced, at press time, that the "Minister has approved a suspension of penalties and interests on Sales Tax and Business Tax due, as well as payee contributions, for a period of two months or the end of November, 2000 as announced by the Commissioner of Inland Revenue.") 6) Dive shop industry status - namely, whose business is up and ready to go. At this point, Amigos del Mar stated they are fully operational and have already taken people to the reef. 7) Reef assessment - exactly how the reef fared through the hurricane. Amigos del Mar mentioned that the reef appeared to be perfectly fine after their divers had recently explored it; canyons appeared to be a bit deeper, but the corals and sponges looked good. Although this information was well received, the need for Coastal Zone to do an official assessment and announcement was suggested. (Upon contacting Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute (CZMA/I) it was learned from their Reef Biologist Miss Bood that assessments were being attempted. Because of the hurricane and subsequent rain, visibility had been too poor for them to properly rate the damage. She further explained there probably would be some damage because of the sediment/silt in the water blocking the sunlight, so therefore corals could bleach.) 8) Restoring normalcy to shops, restaurants, hotels and the entire community - schedules of openings or projected openings were discussed and will be published. It was stated that the Belize Tourism Board (BTB) and the BTIA will be contacted for their assistance on this. (After contacting the BTB, this newspaper learned from Adelina Jeffrey, the new BTB Senior Marketing Officer, that Minister Mark Espat and Tracy Taegar are in New York City this week holding a press conference with travel magazines and several large newspapers. They are assuring them that the country is fine and travel to Ambergris Caye will be accepted by Thanksgiving for some and sooner for others.) The ban on liquor was also discussed and because of this, a NEMO meeting with liquor establishment owners was called for Tuesday morning. (The result of this was curfew being moved to 10:30 p.m. The ban on liquor was lifted except during the hours of curfew 10:30 p.m. until 5 a.m. Bartenders are to cease serving alcohol at 9:30 and to encourage patrons to be out of their businesses by 10:00, so all may have time to be in their houses by curfew.) 9) Mosquito control - amount of spraying being done and what else could be done to control the situation before it gets out of hand. It was explained that certain weather conditions were needed before aerial sprayings could continue and that Town Council would be contacted for an update. It was stated that the weather had been too rainy as of late for ground spraying, so in the meantime, cooking oil could be spread on standing water as a means to control the mosquito larvae.

    It was further announced that the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) will be leaving in the next week and that they would hand over responsibilities to the San Pedro Town Council. Food distribution will continue and the San Pedro Lions Club will be asked to continue these services. Furthermore, the curfew is to stay in effect until power is restored to areas outside of town. A representative of St. Matthew's assured everyone that the students would return on or around January 4th following their semester in the states. It was mentioned that SunBreeze Hotel was being used as a temporary medical facility, but that the facility would soon be relocated to the San Pedro Health Center.

    Area Representative Patty Arceo then took the floor and explained what else was happening. She explained that clean up was going well although more dump trucks were needed. She mentioned that Continental Airlines had been contacted and was considering printing information promoting Ambergris Caye in their in-flight magazine. Along these lines, Fox Network had offered to come back in a few months and do a marketing video on how well the island had fared after the hurricane. The Area Rep also praised the efforts of Marty Casado of website and the San Pedro Sun for putting out a positive message to the world about our destination. In regards to those who have lost their homes, she stated that the Development Finance Corporation is here, a rapid assessment is being done and that loans and refinancing were being arranged. Concern was voiced about NEMO distributing tents, to which she replied that these would only be allowed to be pitched inside the old football field. She assured that more structurally sound houses were to be built and that bids were being collected from several companies inside and outside the country. She concluded the meeting by inviting anyone needing information or services, or having concerns to stop by her office or contact the San Pedro Town Council.
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