BUDGET WATCH 2018 – Part I. Nearing mid-term…

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Has the Rowley Administration delivered?

With the 2018 budget due in September of this year, less than three months from now, and the Rowley Administration’s mid-term coming just a few months after that, the TTWhistleblower begins a review of previous budgets, looking particularly at promises made and the pace and sensibility of the Government’s capital spending programmes.

While revenue has been a challenge in the past few years, the fact is that within its first 18 months, the Rowley Administration racked in at least TT$75 billion, not including billions borrowed through foreign borrowing and local bonds.

Before a third budget is delivered, the questions that must be answered are on the status of promises of projects made before, and why delivery appears to have been so dismal.

2015 to 2017(.5)

The usually harsh mid-term period of any Government is a time when all system seem to malfunction and all guns appear turned on the Cabinet, amplifying even the smallest mistakes as national crises.

This time around, however, as we approach the Rowley Administration’s mid-term, the people of Trinidad and Tobago are carrying more burdens than even they are aware and are more strained than at any other time that this generation can remember.

Perhaps, then, the odd exaggeration of cause, effect and consequence might be excused.

But in 21 months since taking office, what has Keith Rowley brought to the Office of the Prime Minister to redefine and change the way this nation is governed.

Back to Tarouba

Since taking office, the Tarouba Stadium is the only project completed and delivered by the Rowley Administration. However, the project was not actually started or developed by the Rowley Administration.

Among the first moves by the Rowley Administration was the halting of any progression of the Couva Children’s Hospital and a roaring, public determination to finish the Tarouba Stadium.

A brief history of the Tarouba stadium makes one wonder what kind of political advice could possibly have been given to the Prime Minister for him to take ownership, again, of such a tainted and scandalous public debacle.

This project commenced under a previous PNM Administration in 2006 at a budgeted cost of $275 million, which at the time appeared to be quite expensive. After five budgetary increases, the cost of the project escalated to almost $1.2 billion and was still incomplete by the time the PNM left office in 2010.

The stadium was intended to open in time for the 2007 ICC Cricket World Cup. A 2009 enquiry report into the construction sector called the Tarouba Stadium project “nothing short of a national disgrace”, and recommended police investigations of UDECOTT Chairman, Calder Hart and the rest of the board.

The current Sports Minister, Daryl “Tobago Love” Smith announced after taking office that $90M was set aside for the renovation and completion of the stadium, which finally came in at a completion cost of $86,356,723,08, plus of course $1.2 billion.

The final cost of one stadium started and completed by PNM Administrations over the course of 11 years was almost $1.3 billion. At the time the project was conceptualized in 2006, such a cost would have accounted for almost 4% of the budget at that time.

Yes, the reality is that a PNM project estimated at $275 million in 2006 eventually cost this country almost 4% of the 2006 budget, or almost the entirety of the 2006 Public Sector Investment Programme.

It was announced in mid-June 2017 that the stadium will host the playoff and final match of this year’s Caribbean Premier League (CPL). Some may recall the Newsday article of 22 March 2009, headlined “Lara Stadium built on condemned steel”.

We wait to see how hosting such an important, heavily attended cricketing event will pan out.

Projects take a back seat

In making the Tarouba Stadium the flagship project of his Government, Rowley immediately simultaneously put the Point Fortin Highway, Couva Children’s Hospital, Point Fortin Hospital and Arima Hospital, on hold.

He also brought the Government Campus project back to the front burner claiming to have completed it, complete with a formal commissioning and chants of saving $18 million in office rentals.

The issue here is that the Rowley Administration did not in fact complete the Government campus; it was completed by the People’s Partnership Government.

In the 2015 budget delivered by former Minister of Finance and the Economy, Larry Howai, it was clearly outlined: “Madam Deputy Speaker, the outfitting of the Government Campus Plaza which commenced this year will add another dimension to the vibrancy of the capital city of Port of Spain. On completion, our public servants will now be accommodated in state-of-the-art facilities with acceptable and appropriate office space. The sequencing will be as follows:

·         October 2014, next month, the Customs and Excise Division of the Ministry of Finance and the Economy;

·         March 2015 the Immigration Division of the Ministry of National Security;

·         August 2015 the Board of Inland Revenue Division of the Ministry of Finance and the Economy;

·         September 2015 the Ministry of Legal Affairs; and

·         September 2015 the Ministry of Education.”

A total of $1.5 billion was allocated for the completion of the Government Campus building by the People’s Partnership Government.

How the PNM came up with this ruse of claiming to be the ones to complete the Government Campus building remains a mystery, unless of course a toilet bowl and handrail needed to be installed.

In addition, the boast of saving $18 million in rental costs for the Government becomes confusing when the Public Administration and Communications Minister Maxie Cuffie hastened to add his voice to the mix saying the Government saved more than $90 million.

The information cross-wire, however, has not dealt with the Auditor General, Majeed Ali’s recent findings of “a total of $65.3 million paid for the rental of four unoccupied properties by ministries and departments over a period of time.”

Further, in a Trinidad Guardian report on 18 June 2017, it was found: “According to the Auditor General on the Public Accounts Report for the Financial Year 2016, the public interest is not best protected where lease agreements remain informal and unexecuted. The cost to rent buildings and offices for several ministries and departments for 2016 was in excess of $480 million and in some cases, the spaces remained either unoccupied or Cabinet approvals were not produced.”

Some would recall the rental agreement for 1 Alexandra Place, Woodbrook, which was signed and confirmed before the PNM’s defeat in 2010. It was later revealed by former Local Government Minister, Marlene Coudray, that the previous Government was forced by the agreement to pay rental costs, maintenance costs as well as security fees, totaling some $37 million.

The Woodbrook building was owned by NJ Nahous, a company owned and operated by the in-laws of Attorney General, Faris Al-Rawi. The legal representative stated on the lease agreement at that time, according to Coudray, was Al-Rawi.

With all of these figures having been thrown around, bouncing blame back and forth, talk on public projects and Government’s capital spending programme has taken a back seat.

Decentralized Tertiary Education

One such project which was already in the works was the initiative to decentralise tertiary education. This objective was to become the flagship purpose of moving the Ministry of Tertiary Education and Skills Training to Chaguanas and the UWI Law Campus to Debe.

The Ministry project was reversed by the Rowley Administration and the building which was to be occupied by the Ministry of Agriculture has been left an abandoned derelict of a facility. Only a ‘Farmer’s Market’ is operated on weekends on the compound.

The Debe campus, which was completed, has been mired in race steeped controversy since Rowley’s feet first hit the OPM’s floors.

Today, both Tertiary Education and the UWI Law Faculty are worse off, and an oblivious Rowley Administration might well consider them achievements.

It should also be noted that the plan for COSTAATT’s move of its main Campus to Chaguanas was abandoned by the Rowley Administration.

In discontinuing these plans, no alternatives have been presented by the Government to date.

Political spite?

Another project abandoned by Dr Rowley was the Chaguaramas Water Park which was planned for his own Diego Martin West constituency.

This rate of project abandonment is in stark opposition to what obtained between 2010 and 2015 when projects left in limbo by the PNM in 2010 were subsequently completed by the People’s Partnership Administration.

The list below leaves one wondering how much political spite went into the decision making of the current Executive:

·         Tobago Hospital – Completed People’s Partnership Government, after it was started by the Panday Administration and abandoned by the 2001 to 2010 PNM Government;

·         National Academy for Performing Arts (NAPA) – Completed by the Completed People’s Partnership Government;

·         Southern Academy for the performing Arts (SAPA) – Completed People’s Partnership Government;

·         Chancery Lane Complex – Converted to the San Fernando Teaching Hospital by the People’s Partnership Government;

·         Churchill-Roosevelt Uriah-Butler Highway interchange – Completed People’s Partnership Government;

·         Aranguez Overpass – Completed People’s Partnership Government;

·         Churchill-Roosevelt Highway Extension – Completed People’s Partnership Government;

·         Diego Martin Highway project – Completed People’s Partnership Government.

PNM’s PSIP abandoned?

Closer now the capital spending, a look at the Public Sector Investment Programmes (PSIP) and the pace of delivery of the Rowley Administration leaves one wondering how much closer are we to Vision 2030?

Vision 2030 was an unimaginative pseudo-policy initiative, which appeared to have formed out of the 2020 version being dusted off and inconsequentially dotted and crossed, making Patrick Manning’s Vision 2020 into Rowley’s Vision 2030.

The 2017 PSIP states: “Government has set out its broad, long-term development agenda in the draft National Development Strategy 2016-2030 (Vision 2030). Vision 2030 seeks to transform Trinidad and Tobago into a developed country, with sustainable growth and development and an optimal quality of life for all citizens, by the year 2030.”

“It outlines the broad strategies for advancement over the next five years, 2016-2020. As such, Vision 2030 provides the development context for all national and sector policies as well as projects and programmes to be funded under the PSIP.”

The Finance Ministry authored PSIP went on to state: “The 2017 PSIP incorporates the high priority investments which are cognizant of the country’s development goals outlined in the draft National Development Strategy. These goals coalesce around five key thematic areas:

I. Putting People First: Nurturing Our Greatest Asset

II. Delivering Good Governance and Service Excellence

III. Improving Quality Infrastructure and Transportation

IV. Building Globally Competitive Businesses

V. Valuing and Enhancing Our Environment

The document then took a nosedive, stating: “In fiscal 2016, an original allocation of $7,000 million was appropriated to facilitate the implementation of projects and programmes under the PSIP…the original allocation was revised upwards to $7,700 million by the end of the fiscal year.” But, it went on to admit to a 61.1% utilization rate of the PSIP funding: “A total of $4,708.8 million was expended, with $3,162.2 million (67.2%) under the Consolidated Fund and $1,546.6 million (32.8%) under the Infrastructure Development Fund, which represents a utilization rate of 61.1 percent of the revised allocation.”

In Part II of this series, the TTWhistleblower looks deeper into the performance of the Government’s Public Sector Investment Programme for both 2016 and 2017.

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