October 17, 1999
This is ridiculous. Last week the City Councillors chattered and the Government stalled while a stench, ever more pungent and malodorous, wafted its noxious way across the capital city. Did the powers that be not notice the mountains of garbage sprouting in nearly every ward, or was it that their air-conditioned Prados in which they zoomed through the streets effectively insulated them from the miasma? Whatever the case, by Friday the markets had been closed, and there was news of a diarrhoea outbreak in a nursery school, which, it was presumed, had been caused by the insanitary conditions in the municipality. (Or perhaps more correctly one should say, conditions which were even more insanitary than usual.)
All of this came about, so the long-suffering residents were told, because the City Council could not pay its contractors to clean up. And it could not pay its contractors to clean up because it was owed vast sums in rates and taxes, particularly from the Government. Before we reached this crisis point, the Cabinet had some two weeks ago instructed the ministries to pay whatever rates and taxes were outstanding and which had been budgeted for. This order notwithstanding, it seems that several did not comply. And why not? According to Dr Luncheon at his press conference last Friday, it was owing to bureaucracy at the Budget Office of the Ministry of Finance. What a confession coming from the head of the public service.
Well, now we have reached a point where the Ministry of Transport has coughed up $89M, the Office of the President, $2M, while $6M has been paid over for judicial buildings. The markets have been reopened, contractors who have not already begun working will return tomorrow, and the Government has promised assistance to the Council to clear the rubbish mountain. Is then everything hunky-dory? Of course not. There are still monies owing to the municipality, and the war between the City Council and the Government continues unabated.
At his Friday briefing the ever tortuous Dr Luncheon was reported as having said the following: "My own suspicions are that whatever was paid last year and whatever has been paid so far by the Government are not very dissimilar and yet the outcome in 1999 is so profoundly different. The Mayor and City Council may be able to venture some explanation." Well maybe his first proposition is true, and maybe it isn't, and if it is, then maybe the Council can venture an explanation and maybe it can't, but the fact remains that the Government owes the municipality rates and taxes. This is an entirely separate issue from what the Council does with the money.
Nobody denies that the Council's management of city funds is a disaster, as was clear from the Auditor General's report. However, the municipality, like the ministries, is bound by the law and is obligated to produce accounts. Not only should it operate in a transparent fashion, but it also owes the electors a properly presented budget. It deserves to be harried on the accountability front, but not by means of the Government retaining funds for the payment of rates which it is legally bound to release. It is both irresponsible and sets a bad example to the public whom it is exhorting to settle income taxes and the like. If there is any impropriety in the utilization of City Council funds, then the statutes provide for what is to be done.
And if the Government does not like how the City Council has set its priorities for expenditure, that is primarily a matter for the Georgetown electorate, which in its wisdom voted in the present Council and to whom it is answerable. This does not mean to say that the administration does not have every right to query the rationale underlying the municipality's priorities, but that still does not empower it to cease payment of rates. Until the Government meets its financial obligations to the City Council, not only is it not in a position to make snide remarks, but the presumption will be that it and not the municipal authority bears the primary responsibility for the garbage crisis last week.
Will the Government just listen to the citizens for a change. They are not fools. They know they have an incompetent City Council, but they are tired of the political games. Cleaning drains, maintaining a city and removing rubbish are not political issues, they are management issues. They require money and organization. Whether or not the present local government arrangements for the capital are acceptable, we have to live with them for the time being. In the meantime, the Government should keep its nose clean and meet its dues.
A © page from: Guyana: Land of Six Peoples