From THA/BOLT to Calcutta – tangled webs: Part 2

Last week I set out my main concerns in relation to poor procurement processes with the THA/BOLT project.  A large amount of Public Money was being committed to a project with little apparent regard to Value for Money concerns in an arrangement which seems to expose the THA to the principal risks at a time of limited financial resources.

This article is a critical examination of the controversial proposed purchase of 50.6 acres of land at Calcutta Settlement by the Housing Development Corporation (HDC).

The HDC’s role is to build and maintain homes to satisfy the requirements of its main client, the Ministry of Housing and the Environment.  According to that Ministry –

The Corporation is mandated by the Act to:

  • Provide affordable shelter and associated community facilities for low and middle income persons and;
  • Carry out the broad policy of the Government in relation to housing.

With over 125,000 applicants on the HDC’s waiting-list, there is no doubt that, for many poor people, the HDC is their only hope of getting a reasonably affordable home of decent quality.  That means that the HDC is an important implementing agency in our nation’s welfare provisions, which is a role I fully support.

edengardensplanThis post is about ‘Eden Gardens’, which is on the western side of Calcutta Settlement Road No. 2 in Freeport, just north of Central Park, opposite to Madoo Trace.  The property comprises 264 residential lots at an average size of 5,600 square feet, 2 residential/commercial lots, 2 nursery school sites, 2 recreation grounds and 4 playgrounds.

In November 2011, the HDC obtained a valuation from Linden Scott & Associates at $52M.  In January 2012, the owners of Eden Gardens, Point Lisas Park Limited, offered the property to the HDC at $200M.

That is an intriguing sequence of events, since the HDC would hardly pay for a valuation on a property they were not interested in.  If we accept that the property was likely offered to the HDC before they ordered the Scott valuation, then one has to ask on what terms was it offered.  That letter of offer, the original one, must be disclosed now.

In April 2012 the Commissioner of Valuations advised the HDC that the current open market value of the property was $180M.  In June 2012 Cabinet approved the HDC purchase of that property for $175M, which is $663,000 per lot – at an average lot size of 5,600sf that equates to $118 per sf.

The normal professional and commercial practice when buying in this quantity, is to obtain a discount on the unit price.  It would be reasonable to expect that these lots could be sold for significantly more than the HDC agreed to pay.  We will see.

There was a lot of argument in the public about this transaction, so I was prompted to look closely at the deal.

I have these serious concerns –

  1. Point Lisas Park Limited (PLP)
    1. On 1 June 2004, Anthony Sampath, Patrick Soo Ting and Azad Niamat agreed with the owner, Sookdeo Deousaran, to buy the property for $17M. That Sale Agreement is registered as deed # DE2006 023638 20D001.
    2. On 26 April 2007, PLP was incorporated as Co. # P2956 (95), with the same three individuals who agreed to buy the property for $17M as its Directors.  On 6 May 2011, the Companies Register recorded that  Kayam Mohammed became a Director.
    3. On 3 February 2010, according to deed # DE2010 007816 95D001, PLP purchased the property from Sookdeo Deousaran for $5M, paying Stamp Duty of $350,000.

    These purchasers were prepared to pay $17M for this undeveloped property in mid-2004, but ended up paying only $5M for it in early 2010.  This is the same property which was offered to the HDC at $200M in early 2012, two years later.  Literally unbelievable.

    calcutta-timeline_v4

    The stated payment of $5M shown in that 2010 deed is a massive understatement of value, probably being only 10% of the true market value.  The Stamp Duty properly payable on a $50M sale of land would have been $3.5M.  The Stamp Duty Section of the Board of Inland Revenue has the discretion to refer transactions to the Commissioner of Valuations in cases where they suspect that the consideration shown on the deeds is understated.  I am reliably informed that in this case the BIR did not seek an opinion from the Commissioner of Valuations.

    I am calling for that 2010 transaction to be revisited immediately, with a view to the State recouping the proper Stamp Duty.  The Public Interest demands no less.

  2. The missing link 
    163940Between 2004 and 2012, the infrastructure for Eden Gardens was built, which included the roads, street lights, drains, water and electricity supply. Eden Gardens lots were available in 2011 via at least two real estate agents – Golden Key Real Estate Ltd. and Samko Realty – at $400,000 per lot.  This was widely advertised.
  3. The valuations
    • Linden Scott & Associates in November 2011 – $52M
    • Commissioner of Valuations in April 2012 – $180M

    Those lots were known to have been on sale at $400,000 in 2011, so the entire development of 264 lots could have earned its owners a total of say $106M.  Even if we allow a figure of $5M for the “2 residential/commercial lots and the 2 nursery school sites”, we are still in the range of $110M as the ‘Gross Development Value’.

    Given that these lots were clearly not selling at the $400,000 price-point, those estimates are at the upper end of possibility.  Which means that we have to adopt a lower ‘Gross Development Value’, say $95M-100M.

    If the entire development is to be acquired by a single purchaser in early 2012, that purchaser must deduct from the Gross Development Value to cater for –

    • Stamp Duty – at 7% of the Purchase Price;
    • Legal Fees;
    • Developer’s Profit – at a minimum of 25%;
    • Agents’ fees for the sale of the lots;
    • Cost of Finance to account for the cost of borrowing that sum until the lots are sold;
    • Time Value of Money, to account for the element of delay in recouping one’s investment.

    I estimate that those discounts would amount to 35-40% of the Gross Development Value.  If we adopt that approach, the maximum net present value of Eden Gardens in early 2012 as a fully-infrastructured property would be in the $60M range.

The meaning of it all

The usual accepted practice of residential development can be expressed by this ‘rule-of-thumb’, to spend less than twice the cost of the lot does not make best use of that land.

Even if we ignore the ‘rule-of-thumb’, one has to wonder

In what way does this transaction satisfy the HDC’s mandate?

It is most disturbing that there has been this amount of debate without the issue of the end-user ever being mentioned.  How do the real needs of the homeless feature in this massive HDC transaction, if at all?

To my mind this Calcutta Settlement scheme resembles the HDC’s flagship project at Fidelis Heights in St. Augustine which created an elaborate, expensive multiple-family project with no allocation of new homes to the needy people on the waiting-list.

I have established via a separate enquiry that only about 2% of the HDC output of new homes is allocated to those who can only afford to rent and this project is likely to be a continuation of that detrimental trend.  The HDC continues to allocate vast sums of money to housing those who can afford to buy, while leaving the left-overs for those who can only afford to rent.  That policy is inimical to the interest of the poorest members of the public, to whom the HDC is literally the last refuge for decent housing.

In all the circumstances, it seems that we need to have the air cleared on these issues –

  • What is being done about the under-stated consideration in the 2010 deed for the sale of Eden Gardens?
  • How many of the 264 lots were sold at the 2011 asking-price of $400,000?  That is important since it establishes a benchmark for the proper value of these lots in the open market.
  • When did Eden Gardens receive all the required approvals?
  • When was the infrastructure completed at Eden Gardens?
  • On what terms was Eden Gardens originally offered to the HDC?
  • There is an abundance of develop-able State-owned lands in the vicinity, particularly since the 2004 closure of Caroni Ltd.  So why did Cabinet agree to buy private lands in Calcutta Settlement at these prices?
  • Who owns Point Lisas Park Limited?

I close by reminding readers of the corruption ratio set out in the first article.  As I wrote in June 2008, referring to the Manning government and its UDECOTT antics –

…Either the Cabinet or its advisers are responsible. We are either dealing with a lack of rectitude at the highest level of our republic or a sobering naivete…

Declarations

  • Raymond & Pierre Limited, under my leadership, provided certain professional advice on this property in 2007.  No aspect of that advice has formed part of this article.
  • Linden Scott is a former colleague of mine, having trained at Raymond & Pierre Limited.  He is now a rival professional.
  • Raymond & Pierre Limited have provided professional advice to the HDC in the past.

Property Matters – Taking Stock

As part of this pre-budget series, I am going to ‘take stock’ of some recent, significant happenings in relevant areas.

Given the unstable situation in relation to the State and its operations, many examples of which have been set out in previous ‘Property Matters’ columns, it is very important that a critical stance be maintained.  That said, it is also important that any progress be properly recorded and acknowledged.

The notable items were –

Housing Development Corporation (HDC)

hdc-logo
I was very pleased to read of the success HDC was having in collecting the serious rent arrears owed by its tenants, reportedly in excess of $240M.  Of course this is not the first time there has been an effort to rectify this situation, so hopefully this will be a sustained program as it is vital that housing be treated with proper responsibility.  That responsibility would extend from the quality of the designs and construction, the treatment of contractors and suppliers all the way to housing policies which respond to the needs of the needy.

Last week, there was a report in this newspaper that the Housing and Environment Minister, Dr. Roodal Moonilal, disclosed a new housing policy.  According to that report, the new policy will favour distribution of serviced lots, with foundation slabs, over the provision of new homes.  I have been calling for a review of our housing policy for some time now, so it was very disappointing to read that Cabinet had recently approved this important new policy without some formal process of dialogue or seeking wider views, much less a thorough examination of the shortcomings of the 2002 policy.  Yes, a new housing policy was sorely needed, but there are solid benefits to wider dialogue.

Housing is too important an element of our Welfare State to ever become solely a creature of Cabinet, whatever the credentials of the current crop of Ministers.

This leads directly into my point about the poor flow of basic information, which can be detrimental to the best intentions.  The 2002 housing policy disappeared from the internet about 6 months ago, but despite several written requests I have had no success in having those links restored, for whatever reason.  The new housing policy is also not available online.  In contrast, last month the Ministry of Finance issued a revised State Enterprises Performance Monitoring Manual and that is available online, together with the 2008 Manual it replaced.

Building code

Dr. the Honourable Roodal Moonilal, Minister of Housing and Environment
Dr. the Honourable Roodal Moonilal, Minister of Housing and Environment

The impending new Building Code is to be welcomed, having been developed in collaboration with key stakeholders.  There needs to be a solid commitment by all parties to establishing proper enforcement of those critical standards.  The Building Code will cover important areas such as earthquake and fire hazards as well as other quality issues.

The initiative is being piloted by Dr. Roodal Moonilal, Minister of Housing and the Environment.  UDECOTT and the HDC both form part of his responsibilities, so that is a good fit.  We will have to be vigilant to ensure that all State construction conforms to the new standards.

I can scarcely believe that the very Minister who understands the importance of collaborating with stakeholders on the new National Building Code, would state a week earlier that the new Housing Policy had been agreed by Cabinet, with no visible attempt at consultation.  Incredible, but true.

A Culture of Consequence

I have consistently stated that the absence of consequence is inimical to any development and that consequence has to be restored to a proper place if we are to progress.   Up to last Thursday, 11 August, I stated at a public meeting that I was unaware of any government in this country taking decisive action against its own appointees in the State Enterprises.  The pattern has been one of charging people from the last political administration in what almost always looks like revenge.

Dawn Annamunthodo, former chairman of the National Schools Dietary Services Ltd. Photo © Trinidad and Tobago Guardian
Dawn Annamunthodo, former chairman of the National Schools Dietary Services Ltd. Photo © Trinidad and Tobago Guardian

The Sunday Guardian headline of 14 August ‘Cabinet fires Chairman of School-feeding Programme’ was as welcome as it was surprising.  It was reported that the Cabinet had taken decisive action to fire a Chairman who had been appointed about 6 months before and that is a positive step, the first time any government in this country has done that, as far as I am aware.

According to that exclusive story, the fired Chairwoman of the National Schools Dietary Services Ltd (NSDSL)—Dawn Annamunthodo – had obtained extensive and expensive security guards for herself, due to some alleged death threats.  There were also details of what seemed to be deceptive attempts by that individual to become a signatory to the bank accounts of that State-owned company.  If those reports are true, there are two serious implications –

Firstly, it is extremely unlikely that this is the first time that this individual was involved in acts of that kind.  Grown people do not just change their behaviour in a few months’ time, we all know that.  My point being that this episode calls into question the screening which is carried out in relation to these appointments.  Whatever screening processes now exist, will definitely have to be made stronger, together with ongoing reviews of Board performance.

Given that the Prime Minister is widely reported to have approved the Chairpersons of State Boards, that screening process needs to be reviewed urgently so as to preserve the integrity of that office.

Secondly, this individual is reported to have attempted to convince Republic Bank’s Ellerslie Plaza branch to make her a signatory and that matter must be promptly investigated by the Fraud Squad, with charges to follow if those allegations are true.  It is an echo of the point I made here last week about a dutiful police officer allowing a motorist with a defective vehicle to just drive-off after a ticket is issued.  Not good enough, if we are serious about road-safety.  We have to restore a Culture of Consequence if White-Collar Crime is to be challenged.

But, even though no money appears to have been stolen in that School-Feeding episode, the saddest part was the bold-faced question that individual asked the Guardian reporter, when invited to give a comment

How did you get hold of those documents? Those are state documents.   These questions are state business.

It reminded me very much of the response of Jewan Ramcharitar, former PriceWaterhouseCoopers partner, who suddenly resigned as eTeck Chairman almost a month ago.  That entire affair remains mysterious, with Stephen Cadiz, the line Minister, stating that it was due to a ‘difference of opinion’ and the departed Chairman reportedly stating –

I am actually working on a project in the public service arena on a full-time basis and my time at eTeck is eroding the time and attention I pay to that.

“Just what that project is, he won’t say.”

I wonder if Ramcharitar would have found that dismissive answer to be acceptable when he was a partner at PWC?  Probably not, yet we are continually beset by these evasive attitudes in public affairs.  We need to hold our leaders to a high standard.

The latest twist is the sudden resignation of George Nicholas as Chairman of Caribbean Airlines and the opaque statement by the Minister of Transport, Devant Maharaj – “…Yes. I can confirm this. I am in receipt of his letter but I cannot say anything more…

In the three cases, bare-faced conflation of State Business with Business which is private, personal or confidential.

Good steps are to be recognized and applauded, but we must always strive for better.  We need to continue onward and upward.  It would be good to have a statement from the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Communications as to the governments’ commitment to a progressive policy in these important matters.  The Housing policy needs to be published for comment and we also need to have a clear statement as to whether there can be any such thing as a confidential state policy.

Confidential State Policy may seem like an oxymoron, but readers will be aware of the reluctance of the Education Facilities Company Limited to publish its new Confidentiality Policy.  I don’t want to say refusal, but when this budget season is over we will be continuing to examine those EFCL operations.

State Enterprises and Public Procurement

procurement cycleState Enterprises were created to enhance the pace and quality of Public Procurement, yet they are now the scene of the most bedeviling paradoxes in the entire system of public administration.

Some of the key procurement issues which arise in this arena flow directly from the split character of the governance model.

The basic rationale for the existence of State Enterprises is they can be more effective because they are not bound by the strict rules which control the conventional civil service.  The absence of those rules is supposed to allow more latitude in terms of hiring, borrowing and contracting.  State Enterprises can hire professional staff at market rates, enter complex commercial arrangements and borrow on commercial terms, all of which should amount to significant improvements in public services.

The typical State Enterprise is owned by the State, with the shareholding held by the Corporation Sole, an exceptional legal creature which exists within the Ministry of Finance.  Apart from its owner, the State Enterprise will sometimes have a ‘line Ministry’, which would be its sole or main client.  For example, the Ministry of Housing & the Environment is the sole client of the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) and the Ministry of Education is the sole client of the Education Facilities Company Limited (EFCL).

State Enterprises can operate within the existing Companies Act or be established by a separate Act of Parliament, as is the case with the HDC.  That legal framework ought to ensure that a satisfactory standard of corporate governance and accountability is maintained.

The fact is that many of the Directors and Officers of State Enterprises are political appointees, which puts the entire rationale onto a doubtful footing.  Because the salaries and perks are so attractive, not to mention the commercial opportunities, the State Enterprises are prize targets for political appointments and favours.

Some of the main issues which arise when one is considering this sector are –

  • the number of State Enterprises – there needs to be a reduction in the number of State Enterprises.
  • If the politicians can instruct the State Enterprise, via the Permanent Secretary, on specifics, what is the purpose of the Board?
  • Given the preceding point, do the Board members of State Enterprises have the same duties under the Companies Act as in the case of other registered companies?
  • In terms of our proposed Public Procurement legislation, what is the boundary between the fiduciary responsibility of the Directors and the contracting powers of an ‘authorised officer’ – i.e. someone identified as having the power to enter certain contracts?

Proceeding along the Procurement Cycle and using the International Waterfront Centre (IWC) as an example –

  1. Needs Identification – This is the first stage of the Procurement Cycle and it ought to be an objective assessment of needs.  In this case, the IWC was part of a huge, disastrous boom in building new offices in POS – this is all detailed at ‘Capital Concerns – New Office Buildings’ – here.  Before the boom started in 2005, there was 6.5M sq. ft. of offices in Greater POS, at the start of the boom some 3.2M sq. ft., or an additional 50% of the capital’s office supply was approved for construction.  Please remember that Nicholas Tower, which took 5 years to fill, is only 100,000 sq. ft.  Just under 2.8M sq. ft of new offices was actually built in POS in the last 5 years, with 2.3M sq. ft. of that space (82% of it) actually built by the State.  Every State project identified at the outset was executed, but in stark contrast, virtually half the private sector projects stopped before construction began.  The obvious consequence of that over-building by the State has been a collapse in the office rental levels in the capital, which is detailed in the next point.
  2. Reconcile Needs with Funds – This is the stage at which a developer ought to consider critical questions such as the cost of funds, the cost of the project and the returns from it.  That is sometimes called a feasibility test and this is where the IWC dissolves into utter confusion.  When then PM Manning addressed the Senate on 13May 2008, he emphasized that every UDeCOTT project was approved by Cabinet and had been vetted by a Finance Committee on Financial Implications.  That is the most important address if we are to see the depth of the problem with these State Enterprises – see here.  The break-even point on such projects is the rent at which the project can repay its costs of construction – at minimum, those costs would have to include for land, design, construction and finance.  On that ‘bare-bones’ basis, which makes no allowance for maintenance or periods when spaces are vacant, the break-even rent for the IWC is in the $30 per sq. ft. range.  This is the largest single office building ever built in our capital and the best rents ever achieved for space of comparable quality is about half the break-even figure.  There is no way that the IWC project could ever have satisfied any proper feasibility test.  Every new office project started in our capital only increased the supply of offices, which reduced the market rent, which, in turn, increased the gap with the break-even rent.  Under oath at the Uff Enquiry, Calder Hart tried to rationalize the confusion when he confirmed that only one of UDeCOTT’s projects had been subject to a feasibility test and that one was the IWC.  He was even so bold-faced as to estimate a break-even rent in the $20 range, but, when pressed, had to admit that he had left the cost of the land out of the calculations!  That is the extent of the deformed thinking which typified the best schemes of the leading State Enterprise.  Only one of the State’s many office development projects tested for feasibility and in that case, the cost of the land is omitted, yet that same land is included as a part of UDeCOTT’s Assets at $224M in that very financial year.  Political imperatives were allowed to pervert a process which exists to protect the public interest from this kind of empire-building.  But it is in the next part that the full confusion comes to bear.
  3. The rest of the procurement cycle – This is the stage at which tenders were invited for design-build and the winning bidder selected, the project built and the complex opened.  According to UDeCOTT’s statements, the IWC project is its flagship and an outstanding success, having been built on time and within budget.  Even if one accepts those assertions as being true, the IWC project is an example of the tragic consequences of a limited application of proper procurement processes.

As a result we have a completed project which is said to have been built on time and under budget, yet makes no economic sense and has a break-even point at some uncertain point in the future, if ever.

Some collateral damage needs to be noted, to quote one of the former PM’s notable phrases.  Contrary to his statement to the Senate which is cited here, UDeCOTT did not publish its accounts since 2006, which is a breach of both the Companies Act and the Ministry of Finance guidelines.  A total breach of the elementary norms of good corporate governance, which is the protection the private sector structure was supposed to give us taxpayers as a safeguard.  Because of the political element in the operation, we can see clearly that UDeCOTT was carrying-out the instructions of the Cabinet and those Directors have not been punished or censured in any way, apart from their public dismissal.  The consequence of those breaches being condoned at the largest State Enterprises – UDeCOTT and HDC – how does one get the smaller and less-visible State Enterprises to conform to good governance?

If the priest could play, who is we?

This is why we need a complete review of our procurement controls.

An Overview on the CIVIL SOCIETY submission to the Joint Select Committee on PUBLIC PROCUREMENT

This special publication is dedicated to the important issue of Public Procurement.  It is written by the a private sector group, headed by the Joint Consultative Council for the Construction Industry (JCC).  The JCC consists of:

  1. Association of Professional Engineers of Trinidad & Tobago (APETT)
  2. Trinidad & Tobago Institute of Architects (TTIA)
  3.  Board of Architecture of Trinidad & Tobago (BOATT) – observer status
  4. Trinidad & Tobago Society of Planners (TTSP)
  5. Trinidad & Tobago Contractors’ Association (TTCA)
  6. Institute of Surveyors of Trinidad & Tobago (ISTT) comprising Land Surveyors, Quantity Surveyors and Valuation Surveyors.

The private sector group consisted of –

  • Joint Consultative Council for the Construction Industry
  • Trinidad & Tobago Chamber of Industry & Commerce
  • Trinidad & Tobago Manufacturers’ Association
  • Trinidad & Tobago Transparency Institute.

The members of that Private Sector group were part of the Working Party on the Public Procurement White Paper, which was published in August 2005 and laid in Parliament the following month.

The Peoples’ Partnership’s manifesto, at page 18, commits to –

Procurement

  • Prioritise the passing of procurement legislation and appropriate rules and regulations
  • Establish equitable arrangements for an efficient procurement system ensuring transparency and accountability by all government departments and state enterprises…

In keeping with those campaign promises, the Minister of Finance tabled two legislative proposals in Parliament on 25 June 2010.  Those were a Bill to amend the Central Tenders’ Board Act (originally prepared in 1997, when Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj was Attorney General) and the Public Procurement Bill (originally prepared in 2006, after publication of the White paper).  A Joint Select Committee (JSC) was established on 1 October 2010 to examine those proposals, invite submissions and make recommendations.

The stated target of the PP government is to have the new Public Procurement legislation in place by the first anniversary of their electoral victory – i.e. by 25 May 2011.

Our Private Sector/Civil Society group reconvened last year and made a joint submission to the JSC in December 2010 – it is available here from the JCC‘s website.  Our Private Sector group has had several meetings with the JSC – which was chaired by Education Minister, Dr. Tim Gopeesingh – but the results of those are not featured in this publication.

This special publication is intended to inform readers of the necessity for new Public Procurement legislation in our country and to set out the objectives of our proposals.

The guiding Principles

 These are –

  • Transparency
  • Accountability
  • Value for Money

The broad picture

One of the most serious findings of both the Bernard Enquiry (Piarco Airport Project) and the Uff Report (UDeCOTT and HDC) was the extent to which the largest State projects were being executed outside of any normal system of accountability.  The very purpose of setting up these companies and procurement methods was to bypass the Central Tenders Board.  The natural consequence of that way of proceeding being that if the CTB could be sidelined as a deliberate act of public policy, then other important elements of the regulatory framework are violated as a matter of course.  In the case of both UDeCOTT and NHA/HDC, accounts were not filed for years – since 2006 for the former and 2002 for the latter – in flagrant violation of the rules and laws.

These were the largest State projects – often described as being the flagship or centre-piece of this or that government’s policy – yet they were breaking the main rules and getting away with it.  The ‘getting away with it’ is the cloudy part of the picture, because we never hear of any penalty being sought against those State Enterprise Directors who broke the governance rules.

But that is the very centre of the puzzle and we need to understand it before we can try to unlock it.  So, we are told, time and again, that the only way to really get important and urgent projects done in the correct fashion is to go outside the rules.  The stated reasons are that the old rules are too cumbersome, slow etc… and yet, we end up, time and again, in the same mess.

Some of the features of these fiascos are –

  • Huge cost over-runs on virtually every project.
  • Unfinished projects which virtually no one can make sense of – to date there is no proper rationale for the huge and loss-leading International Waterfront Project, apart from Calder Hart’s bogus explanation to the Uff Enquiry.
  • A gross burden on our Treasury going forward – The continuing delay in completing the accounts for these State Enterprises shows how difficult it is to work out exactly what the State owes and to whom.

What all that tells us is that the existing rule-book seems to be blocking progress and the attempts to bypass it have done little better, if not far worse.

The dismal picture on public procurement is not limited to construction projects and can be found in all the other areas.

A new approach is needed and that is what is at the foundation of these legislative proposals.

What is Public Money?

Central to the new proposals is that any new Public Procurement system must be in full effect whenever Public Money is spent.

Public Money’ is defined at page 5 of our proposals as money which is either due to, or ultimately payable by, the State.

Our proposals are intended to form part of a financial management reform package to include for a National Audit Office and a Financial Management and Accountability Bill.

The intended move is towards a greater transparency and duty of care in terms of how taxpayers’ money is spent.  Our citizens, particularly the unborn ones who will have to pay for some of the wasteful schemes which are littering the landscape, deserve no less.

The new equation confronting us is –

Expenditure of Public Money
minus            Accountability
minus            Transparency
equals         CORRUPTION

We must fix that.

So, what is at stake here?

Our society is beset by large-scale corruption, which sustains wrong-headed decision-making.  The wider social consequences of that toxic culture are now hatching, with a vengeance, in the naked violence and wily crimes which pre-occupy our head-space.

The killing-fields of East POS, the decimation of African urban youths, the URP and CEPEP gangs and the battle for turf are all part of this picture.

As long as our society continues to applaud and reward dishonest, corrupt behaviour, we will continue sliding downhill.

The structure of our economy is that most of the country’s foreign exchange is earned by the State in the form of oil & gas earnings.  The rest of the society relies on the State and its organs to recycle those earnings for the benefit of those of us not directly engaged in the energy sector.

For that reason, the State casts a very long shadow in our country, far more so than in other places.  Virtually every substantial business relies on the State and its organs for a significant part of its earnings.  A healthy connection with the State is essential for good profits.

But that is where the particular problem is, since the conduct of the State and its organs is often found to be lacking in the basic ingredients of fairplay, accountability and transparency.

If the State is the biggest source of funds in the place and the State is not playing straight at all, a serious question arises – How can we hope to uplift our society?

The State has an over-riding duty to behave in an exemplary fashion in its policy and operations.

Due to its tremendous footprint, the State has to behave in that exemplary fashion if we are to move out of this mess.  A positive shift in State conduct will have a salutary effect on the commercial culture and wider society, one that is long overdue.

So, who spends Public Money?

We have a vast, expensive and confusing array of organs, all of which are authorized to spend our money.  For a country of about 1.4M people, we have 26 Ministries.  Just consider that the UK, with a population of about 65 million, has 19 Ministries and the USA, with a population of about 300 million, has 16 Ministries.  For a Caribbean example, Jamaica has twice our population and 16 Ministries.

Quite apart from the number of Ministries, there are two further layers of agencies which also have the power to spend – our country has 73 Government Bodies and 58 State Enterprises.

Given the vast range of operations undertaken by these agencies, any new system would have to be flexible in order to cover all those types of transactions.

The main features of the new system

Three new independent organs will be created –

    1. The Procurement Regulator (PR), with the duty to create overall Guidelines and a common handbook to guide the public procurement process.  The Regulator is appointed by the President in his own discretion and reports only to the Parliament.  Agencies can create their own procurement handbooks, once these conform to the overall Guidelines, as approved by the Procurement Regulator.
    2. The Public Procurement Commission (PPC) will be the investigative arm of the new apparatus to which complaints will be directed.
    3. The National Procurement Advisory Council (NPAC) will be purely advisory and comprises 14 members from a broad range of named private sector/civil society organisations – the JCC, Manufacturers’ Association, Chamber of Commerce, Transparency Institute – as well as the Ministry of Finance and the Tobago House of Assembly.

All expenses are to be drawn on the Consolidated Fund, with the Procurement Regulator and Advisory Council required to report annually to Parliament.

A vital part of our proposals is that Cabinet, Government Ministers or politicians are prohibited from instructing or directing these new agencies in any way.

They are intended to be entirely independent of political influence, which conforms to the proposals in the White Paper.

That freedom from political influence was also specified in both the 1997 and 2006 draft legislation.

A Complaints Procedure

The proposed system will create clear rights to make complaints or report wrongdoing.  Those rights are an important aspect of any modern procurement system and we propose three types of complaints/investigations –

  1. Potential tenderers/suppliers can complain, in the first instance directly to the Agency with which the tendering opportunity resides, then, if that is not dealt with satisfactorily, they can complain to the Public Procurement Commission.  Ultimately, the right to seek the protection of the High Court is preserved, once the established complaints procedure has been followed.
  2. The Whistleblower – We are proposing that whistleblowers be given legislative protection and practical means to bring their complaints direct to the Public Procurement Commission.
  3. The Public Procurement Commission can also, on its own initiative, start an investigation into an area of concern.

There are strict time-limits for acknowledgement and resolution of complaints.

Our proposal is for the Public Procurement Commission to have powers to punish both frivolous complainants as well as parties found to be in breach of the new system.  Those can range from fines to embargoes, during which offending parties can be banned from tendering opportunities.  Offending public officers can be subject to both fines and/or imprisonment.

The concern over the cost of the new apparatus

One of the most frequently expressed criticisms is that as critics of the rationale and operations of significant State Enterprises, we seem to be proposing a new series of state-funded agencies.  Some people have pointed out that these offices are unlikely to be cheap, particularly the PPC, which is to be constituted as a standing Commission of Enquiry under those existing legal provisions.

Yes, there will be new agencies and yes, they will cost money.

Given the recent revelations as to the cost of the Uff Enquiry – already estimated to exceed $50M – there are genuine concerns that we could soon have three new state-funded agencies which could absorb maybe $100M a year.

The challenge here is to move beyond the obvious and factual observations so that we can consider the decisive factors.  Our proposals have the promotion of Value for Money as one of its founding principles and that is good for the public.  So, how can we measure the value for money of these proposals, at this stage?

The scale of public procurement spending

In the case of expenditures direct out of the Ministries, the 2011 Budget has an anticipated capital expenditure for the Ministries of $7.050Bn, as per para 8 at page 4 of the Public Sector Investment Program (PSIP).

Also in that Budget there is an anticipated capital expenditure for the State Enterprises of $6.725Bn, as per the Foreword at page 4 of the Supplementary Public Sector Investment Program (Supplementary PSIP).  The combined figure of $13.775Bn is only for projects, so it excludes the salaries, rents and normal running expenses.  Please note that other elements in public expenditure, beyond just capital projects, will be covered by these proposals.  The guiding principle being that those activities involve the expenditure of Public Money.

There are very limited exemptions from the proposed provisions and those can be viewed at the JCC website.

I am also sure that there are other ways in which Public Money is being expended which are not shown in the national Budget, so the amounts are surely larger than that estimate.

The potential for savings

The scale of the public transactions, involving Public Money, which will come under the control of this new system is huge, at least $14Bn in size.  Even if the new system only saves 5% of that sum every year, we can easily justify an annual running expense in the $100M range, as mentioned earlier. 5% of $14Bn is $700M.

In the next 30 days, we expect our Legislators to make the crucial decisions on this series of proposals and we all need to be vigilant to preserve the key points.

Those key points would include –

  • Heads of Independent organs to be appointed by the President
  • Separation of the Regulator from the Investigator
  • Regulations laid in Parliament for negative resolution, with no Ministerial or Cabinet approval required.
  • Independent Organs funded from the Consolidated Fund, with no requirement to seek a Ministerial approval or Budget vote.
  • Accountability is ensured by the requirement to report annually to Parliament.
  • Private Sector/Civil Society oversight via the National Procurement Advisory Council.
  • Proper provisions for complaints and Whistle-Blowers.

The ultimate question, given what we know now, is – Can we afford not to take this step?

At this unique and challenging moment in what has been a long, twisted journey, the prospects of more corruption and waste are grim.

For these proposals to succeed, the legislators will have to vote in favour of a new law which reduces their power and discretion.  To some, that might be an impossible contradiction and an unreasonable thing to expect, but there will be considerable political credit to the account of those who make this change happen.  Our citizens deserve no less.

Property Matters: Housing Policy Review as an element of the Welfare State

There has been a recent, refreshing discussion on the shape and necessity of our welfare state.  The Welfare State is used to refer to the various administrative arrangements which redistribute the nation’s wealth to assist the more needy citizens in our midst.

The discussion was initiated in the T&T Review of  January 3 in Gregory McGuire’s thoughtful and solidly-based review of the welfare spending trends and their wider consequences.  The responses ranged from a two-part article (Part I & Part II) in the Express from Professor John Spence, with an attempted rebuttal from Dr. Errol Mathura in the same newspaper.  From the Guardian, there has been a serious commentary on Sunday 16 by Dr. L Trevor Grant – ‘Curb escalating poverty in rich T&T’ – and the editorial of Monday 17, dealing with the fate of the empty HDC houses.

That Guardian editorial – ‘Housing Shame’ – was based on the reports of an investigation into the situation at several of the HDC virtually-completed, but unoccupied housing projects.

Sunday’s Guardian headlined with ‘Scandalous’ on an abandoned $156M HDC project and that is my point of discussion on this Welfare State matter.  The empty homes built by the HDC are symbolic of a serious need to re-examine our housing policy.

Above and beyond the case of the vandalized HDC homes, the fundamental public housing situation is scandalous.  Scandalous is my word to describe a policy of allocating of scarce resources to build homes, without satisfying the needs of the poorest applicants.  That is a blatant misallocation of public resources.

As I wrote in the Trinidad Guardian newspaper in 2007, our housing market is divided into 5 layers, moving from the neediest to the wealthiest –

  • Homeless – People who have nowhere to live or rely on charity for shelter.
  • Permanent Renters – People who can never afford to buy.
  • Transitional Renters – People who are renting now, but will end up as home-owners.
  • Home Owners – People who own their homes.
  • Multiple Home-owners – People who are wealthy enough to own more than one home – these people are also the ones who rent property to the others.

According to the latest figures released by the Housing Development Corporation in March 2010, there are over 10,000 empty homes in their stock of newly built units.  In addition, there is a waiting-list of hopeful applicants believed to be in excess of 100,000 people.  How can we reconcile those figures?

Dr. L Trevor Grant is the only author, to my knowledge, to have written on the plight of the homeless in our society and his column in Sunday’s Guardian gave telling details on the level of need in those communities.

Showing Trinidad and Tobago A New Way HomeWe have constructed a national housing policy which pays only lip-service to the housing needs of the poorest applicants.  The clear preference – PNM or PP – is for the applicants who qualify to buy a home from HDC.  That is the only explanation for the reality of 10,000 empty new homes and 100,000 waiting applicants.

There have been some recent handovers of new HDC homes to applicants featured in the press and those have all detailed the incredible length of time these applicants waited for their new homes.  Waiting periods in excess of 20 years have been mentioned.

There is a severe disconnect between these expensive policies to provide subsidized housing and the reality of being a poor applicant on HDC’s waiting-list.

At this point, an estimated 76% of our people live in owner-occupied property.  That is comfortably above the comparative figures for the USA or the UK, where the numbers are in the 68-69% range.  It seems clear that we are approaching the limits to which we can realistically grow home-ownership in our country.  In some ways we may already have exceeded those limits.

Another point I detailed in my 2010 seriesHousing Policy Imperatives’, was the nature of the housing subsidy being offered by the HDC.  For example, if the HDC sells a home with a market value of $500,000 to an applicant for a price of $325,000, the difference between those two figures is the housing subsidy.  Yes, in this example there is a $175,000 housing subsidy to each of those people who buy those homes from HDC.

The big question is – if the HDC can afford to provide these benefits to applicants in the layer of ‘transitional renters’, what are the levels of subsidy and number of new homes being provided to those in the poorer layers?

If that relationship does not improve to favour those who cannot ever afford to buy, we will be stuck in an increasingly frustrating housing fix.

The housing fix is notable for the inequity with which the country’s scarce resources are allocated and the hopelessness of the poorer applicants.

There are also secondary problems which run very deep and those include the issues highlighted in the Guardian’s story on the abandoned HDC estate.

What is the cost of securing all these virtually complete, but vacant homes?  I am reliably informed that the annual cost of security is of the order of $50M, yet there are still significant episodes of vandalism and squatting.

Additionally, we have to factor in the cost of maintaining and repairing the unoccupied homes.  Empty properties deteriorate at a faster rate and that is a cost to the HDC which could be avoided by putting people to live in these empty homes.

The estimated annual sum of $50M to secure these homes is staggering.  That sum of money could build over 200 badly-needed low-income homes every year.

HDC board
HDC Board

There is a newly-appointed HDC Board and the time is now opportune for a review of this important Welfare State policy.

A critical factor in all this is the role of rent controls, since the long-established rent control boards were allowed to wither on the vine by the last administration.

Rent controls and the planning regime need to form a part of the Housing Policy Review.

There is no right way to do the wrong thing.

Property Matters: Some comments on the property and construction proposals of Budget 2011

Winston Dookeran, MP and Min. of Finance reading Budget 2010. Original photo courtesy Trinidad GuardianThis was the inaugural budget for both the newly-elected People’s Partnership and its Finance Minister, Winston Dookeran.

The burning question for me in preparing these comments was the big one – “Is the Honeymoon over?”

In my view, the honeymoon for this new government will last about 6 months, given the sheer scale of the mess they have inherited.

There were real expectations aroused in the recent election campaign and the reduced revenues available to the State would have made the budget into a balancing-act, particularly when one considers the repeated promises of ‘No New Taxes’.

The main items on the property and construction aspects were –

  1. PROPERTY TAX
    The Property Tax was ‘Axed’ as promised – “…The Property Tax will be replaced by the old Lands and Building Taxes regime at the old rates and old values. There will be a waiver of lands and buildings tax for the year 2010…”There has been a misleading rebuttal on this from the Opposition Leader, Dr. Keith Rowley, in that the 2011 Estimates of Revenue tell us that the Land & Building  Taxes are expected to increase from $71.4M to $173.8M.  Rowley’s statement would lead one to think that the property tax take would be of the order of $300M, due to the omission of the municipalities. In fact, that is not the case, since the revenue of the five municipalities (POS, San Fernando, Arima, Chaguanas and Point Fortin) are found in the Estimates of Revenue for Statutory Boards and Similar Bodies etc.  Due to the fact that one of the effects of the controversial property tax was to relieve these municipalities of their powers to tax property, the 2011 estimates of revenue need to be properly interpreted.  The municipalities are estimated to raise revenue of nil in 2011, since all their revenue – as well as that of the regional corporations – is collected by the Counties and transmitted to the Central Government.The true picture is that $142.52M was the estimate of revenue from property taxes in 2009 – that is the combined figure for House Rates, paid in municipalities, and Land & Building taxes paid elsewhere.  We are therefore anticipating an increase in revenue from this source of the order of 18%.

    No rationale was given for the waiver of property taxes for 2010, which was an astonishing decision, given the background against which the budget was drawn up.

    Before I leave the property tax topic, it is interesting to consider that rental income is also subject to income tax.  Not many people who own rental property actually pay income tax on that rental income – if you don’t believe me, just ask a few friends or relatives who own rental property.  This seems to me to be an area in which the Finance Minister can easily collect the data and increase the State’s revenue by staying within the ‘No New Taxes’ promise and implementing the laws which are already on the books.  But more on that in a later article.

  2. HOUSING
    The Minister of Finance made strong statements in support of home ownership, he also outlined what appears to be a merger between several State-controlled mortgage companies.  No target numbers of new homes to be built were given. The Housing and Environment Minister, Dr. Roodal Moonilal, recently announced that the Housing Development Corporation’s (HDC) new output target is 6,000 new homes in 2011. The Housing and Environment Ministry have zero allocation of capital funding according to the 2011 Estimates of Expenditure.  There is an allocation of $845M to the Hosuing and Settlements programme shown in the Public Sector Investment Program (PSIP).  Those estimates should cross-reference with each other and the fact that they do not is cause for concern, to say the least. This is the pattern of State spending on new homes, derived from the capital allocations only –

    Year Housing Ministry Capital Allocation ($M)
    2008 $718.70
    2009 $1,342.40
    2010 $860.40
    2011 $845.00

    There was also the revival of an annual tax credit of $18,000 per household for first-time owners for the first five years.  That measure is expected to cost $20M, which implies that just over 1,100 households will benefit from this provision.  To quote – “…This measure will generate significant investment in the private sector housing industry….”  Given the quantity of unsold, privately-built homes and the volume of HDC units soon to be released onto the market, it seems quite unrealistic to expect that this measure could yield ‘significant investment‘.

    What is of greater concern to me is the question of whether we are at the limits of possibility as to home-ownership levels.  76% of our households now own their homes, the comparative figure for the USA is 69% and for the UK it is 68%.  How realisitic is it to keep pushing for increasing home-ownership?

    The HDC’s low-cost ‘Accelerated Housing Program’ stalled, with over 10,000 empty homes as proof, due to a shortage of applicants who could qualify for a mortgage.

    The Minister of Finance spoke of the neglect with which our organisational and institutional infrastructure had been treated and I could not agree more.  On this count, there needs to be proper consideration given to the resucitation of the Rent Control Boards.  Also, the HDC needs to start giving some of those empty homes to people who just want to rent.

  3. Special Purpose Entities (SPEs) – What is their future in this new dispensation

    Mr. Speaker, no coherent, co-ordinated planning or strategy for state enterprises exists. As a result we have begun to rationalize the state enterprises, including the special purpose companies, which will incorporate a new accountability system that goes beyond the presently operating company ordinances. It is these loopholes in public accountability that resulted in the UDeCOTT scandal. This must never again happen in Trinidad and Tobago.

    Now that this just not so since there is a Performance Monitoring Guide of State Enterprises, published by the Investments Division of the Ministry of Finance in 2008. (see – http://www.finance.gov.tt/content/pub0DCE11.pdf)

    This issue, as always in our country, is one of implementation.  The provisions  of that guide are not being followed and the wrongdoers are not being called to order.

    The issue for us is to prevent the recurrence of that pattern of mismanagement and disorder in public affairs.  That can only happen if we enforce the present guidelines and systems.

In the next column, I will discuss the attempt to map out a new philosophy in this budget and the CL Financial/HCU bailout.

Housing Policy Imperatives – part 6

I am bringing this analysis to a close by asking the question as to which individuals are ultimately responsible for this scandalous situation.  The age-old questions persist – Are we mere creatures of circumstance?  What influence can one individual have on transforming a situation?  Do modern outlooks over-emphasise the power of the individual?

We need to close the circle to understand the role of the high-powered individuals in charge of this policy.

The Author of the Policy

Calder Hart
Former HMB and UDeCOTT CEO, Calder Hart

Calder Hart, then CEO of Home Mortgage Bank and well-known to be a protégé of Andre Monteil’s, claimed to have authored our National Housing Policy – ‘Showing Trinidad & Tobago a new way home

In October 2002, Hart told me that in his office and he made a point of seeking my views of the new policy.

I questioned the originality, relevance and feasibility of the proposed policies and a frank discussion ensued.  It seemed clear, from Hart’s reaction and subsequent behaviour, that he had indeed taken authorship of that misguided policy.

That policy can be viewed at here.  Given their non-involvement in the later stages, it is interesting that the cover-page of the housing policy highlights UdeCOTT as a main state agency in its implementation.

The Minister of Housing

Keith Rowley
Former Min. of Housing, Dr. Keith Rowley, M.P.

The Minister of Housing with longest tenure through this period was Dr. Keith Rowley, M.P., currently leader of the Opposition PNM – he was in that office from  November 2003 to November 2007 – see http://www.ttparliament.org/members.php?mid=26&pid=5&id=KRO01.

The HDC was launched on 1st October 2005 to replace the National Housing Authority.  The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspaper reported Dr. Rowley’s remarks at that time – see http://legacy.guardian.co.tt/archives/2005-10-15/news7.html

Earlier, Rowley said the NHA was restructured because it lacked accountability.

There are a lot of things that did not go right in the NHA and one of those things had to do with accountability…The HDC is not going to function like that. We are required by law to have the accounts ready in a certain period of time.  The CEO will be held accountable and the Cabinet will hold the minister accountable and the Parliament will hold the Cabinet accountable. That is what the HDC means.

“…the HDC never published any accounts in the 5 years of its existence. It goes even further, since the NHA’s accounts for the period 2002 to 2004 have only recently been prepared.”

Continue reading “Housing Policy Imperatives – part 6”