Former Port-of-Spain Mayor Louis Lee Sing says the Revenue Authority is critical now more than ever to reign in millions of dollars in taxes escaping the system.
Speaking with BuzzHub on Wednesday, Lee Sing said its existence is tied into not just reigning in illegal immigrants but as part of a wider plan for the country’s development. Former National Security Minister Gary Griffith said in 2013 that there were approximately 30,000 illegal immigrants in Trinidad & Tobago not paying taxes and denying locals job opportunities.
“We are not progressing. We might have more people becoming independent by doing things like, a lot of the gyros people I know who must be doh [sic] even have a residency status here, we have a lot of Venezuelans here who are doing all kinds of trade hawking and trading all over the place. We have the whole of CARICOM and Africa on Charlotte Street.
“So there is a measure of disorganisation with what is happening. The truth is I don’t know that the profits of all of these (traders), people pay no taxes even though they are making more than the $72,000 (new income tax ceiling) Dr Rowley has proposed,” he said.
However, the former Mayor also said there is the larger problem of assessing local businesses to measure income and ensure the appropriate taxes are paid.
“Nobody is really able to account for what goes on with… taxis, maxi taxi drivers, double’s vendors, street hawkers, all of these people make more than the $72,000 (new tax ceiling) but they don’t pay taxes.
“That is why the Revenue Authority as prescribed by Mr. Manning was so important. It was intended to loop all of these things (together) so that if everybody rendered onto Caesar what was Caesar’s, we won’t be struggling as a country. Fish vendors. How much money you think a fish vendor makes? When you go and buy ten pounds of fish, how much do you pay? Two hundred and something dollars. How much pounds of fish does the fish vendor sell? And the list goes on,” he said.
Supermarket shelves are increasingly littered with locally prepared foods and products, and when asked about the increase in small businesses providing these goods and services, and whether or not entrepreneurship is now easier than when he began his entrepreneurial endeavours, Lee Sing said there is indeed more money, the population is smarter, but he questions the overall management of tax collection and job creation.
“I have a good friend who recognised that girls like to wear boots for Carnival, so he has developed a trade where every Carnival now he selling boots. And as a result of that because his boots are in demand, he is now selling boots all up the region for other Carnivals. Now that is entrepreneurship.
“But is it, as it were, increasing any (or) encouraging (or) creating employment? Is he paying taxes? And so on and so forth. These are the fundamentals in the country,” he added.
Lee Sing said one of the first moves to ensuring diversification and securing the development of the country’s Micro, Small, and Medium enterprises is to place the relevant ministry where it belongs. As it stands, the former Mayor said, a lack of proper planning has stuck an important ministry in an area it doesn’t belong.
“We have placed an important component like Micro to Small to Medium Enterprises in the Ministry of Labour. That is as it were, a counterpoint. Where you need to place that is in the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Or you need to establish a Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise so that it will be given the breadth, and the depth, and the width and the air to breathe to grow.
“We have got to sit down and work out a plan where as a nation we want to be in five, ten, fifteen, twenty years. In other words do we want to be- given our literacy levels, an IT (Information Technology) nation? Do we want to be want to be a nation where we can, as it were, attract because of our medical institutions, patients from all over the world to do medicine here? Because there’s a fair measure of it going on up the Caribbean."
He questioned how far government was willing to go to plan properly for the diversification of the economy, saying that a plan has to be developed with a view toward deciding if, for example, the vision for the country is to become an Information Technology (IT) centre.
“So the question is to what extent are we willing to do the work to plan it to ensure that at the end of the day we have a plan so that we know that in ten years’ time we have developed a thousand IT companies; in ten years’ time we would have developed an additional five hundred manufacturing companies with a fair variety, because we don’t want everybody making gym boots, and cardboard boxes. So that, that kind of plan is not now happening,” he said.
Regarding Port-of-Spain’s development, Lee Sing says there appears to be a lack of understand by business owners in the capital city of how the country has been developing over the last fifteen years. Business owners have lamented that consumers are shopping less in the city and they have cited various reasons they believe as the cause, including wrecking, and a troubled economy. Lee Sing, however, says the point is being missed.
He said with the proliferation of gated and other communities across the country, corresponding shopping, amenities and conveniences also developed within or nearby these developments.
“And that is why Gregory Aboud (DOMA President) doesn’t understand what is going on in the country, because creations are happening across the society. La Romain, you name it. People no longer have to come to the city to shop.
“What the government and the city has failed to do is to re-engineer Port-of-Spain into something unique and special. The days are long gone when people would come to Port-of-Spain to buy a pair of football boots, or to buy a shirt,” he told BuzzHub. “It’s turning Port-of-Spain into a centre for craft, for art, for offices for people in law and accountancy, so it becomes a kind of financial, commercial centre. That is unique and different. If people want to buy cloth they going somewhere else where it’s more convenient,” he said.
He said the development of Port-of-Spain hinges on one key factor he believes former Prime Minister Patrick Manning missed.
“Mr. Manning was thinking about building a building, no. We had the financial centre right there. All those buildings downtown should be converted for lawyers and accountants and financial institutions etc. So you have a totally new clientele and you would keep the city alive where we could then perhaps bring some ‘residentials’ back into it.”