Monday 18th February, 2008

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Injustice in waste of taxpayers, fund

When Ramnarine Ramdass decided to construct a $10 million property for commercial rental, he almost certainly didn’t expect his investment to become a drainpipe through which more than $4,000,000 of taxpayers’ money would swirl away uselessly.

Ramdass, a member of the board of directors of state-owned Petrotrin, built a three-storey building on Ramsaran Street in Chaguanas, with large glass-panelled windows and a dramatic gabled entrance within clear sight of the highway.

Construction of the building, within sight of the home of the Mayor of Chaguanas, was called to a halt in 2005, as the Government rented the property and chose to exercise an option to complete construction to the requirements of a temporary home for Chaguanas Magistrates’ Court.

On February 8, Attorney General Brigid Annisette-George offered an unusually frank and open assessment of the Government’s involvement with the building since it took possession, which has largely been one of spending and neglect on a scale that must be a source of embarrassment to the administration.

Apart from the $4,000,000 spent on rent from January, 2005, to January, 2008, the Government has allocated a further $8,000,000 from the national purse under the “Infrastructure Development Fund‚” for the purpose of refurbishment, repair and purpose-built construction to bring the Ramsaran Street building into line with the requirements of a temporary relocation site for the Magistrates’ Court.

A further $300,000 has been spent on trying to stem the problems with the existing Magistrates’ Court, while the $114,000 government rent on the Ramsaran Street property supported illicit drug use, sexual activity and general squatting that has been the primary utilisation of the property, all but abandoned by its renter.

While the AG’s report on the situation with this Chaguanas property has been revealing, there is still more that has been left unsaid about a clear and complete collapse of procedure, regarding both the use of public funds and the processes that should logically follow the rental of a property for government use.

Why, for instance, did the property not formally fall under the administration of either the Housing Development Corporation, Ministry of Works, or even, by default, the Attorney General’s Office, for the initiation of the most rudimentary of post-rental processes?

Who was responsible for securing the property, commissioning design plans for its refurbishment and scheduling completion and transition dates for the planned resiting of Chaguanas Magistrates’ Court?

With this scandalous use of taxpayers’ money now public, what is the Government going to do next?

The idea of spending $12 million on a property constructed for $10 million by its owner, in order to house temporarily the Magistrates’ Court, simply makes no sense.

Pursuing such a course of action would only represent a further affront to the sensibilities of the public.

What we are witness to here is waste on an epic scale; money spent and money budgeted with no eye on results, or even the most elementary considerations of return on investment.

In the face of mammoth government spending on projects, this revelation of an almost complete failure of the normal checks and balances that any sensible person would expect to be in place for an expensive rental, sends a troubling message of fiscal carelessness and a lack of responsibility that cannot be tolerated.

The only sensible government response to this debacle is the institution of an independent and transparent system of internal auditing of governmental projects and expenditure that will hold government planning and spending to internationally-accepted standards of project management and good governance.

Despite almost continuous governmental assurances that their plans are being executed in the best interests of the public, the time has come for those assurances to be reviewed by independent professionals who are not required to endorse the public relations message of the government in power.

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