Union/Naarstigheid neighbourhood council
'Democracy rules here, you know' -Stabroek News sits in on statutory meeting By Miranda La Rose
Stabroek News
January 17, 2004

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(This is the 11th in series)

Union/Naarstigheid is one of ten neighbourhoods in Region Five (Mahaica/West Berbice). It encompasses an area of roughly 16 square miles and stretches from Union in the west to Naarstigheid in the east covering 14 villages.

The villages are Union, Trafalgar, Onverwagt, Lovely Lass, Golden Grove, Bush Lot, Armadale, Bel Air, St John's, Firebrace, Onder-neeming, Catherina's Lust, Fort Wellington and Naarstigheid.

St John and Firebrace are collectively called the village of Hopetown. The NDC has a population of about 10,000 people.

The composition of the council ought to be 18 but at present there is just half the amount. A quorum comprises one third of the members of the council.

Asked why only nine councillors remain, the Neighbourhood Democratic Council (NDC) Chairman Edwin Joseph says he does not think from the inception that most of the councillors understood the implications of local government and what was required of them. There were councillors who were installed because they were party activists, he says.

Joseph heads the Naarstigheid Union Develop-ment Group (NUDG), which contested the 1994 local government elections and won ten of the 18 seats. The PPP/C, which contested the elections, took eight. Of the nine persons who make up the current council seven are members of the NUDG and the two others are from the PPP/C.

The reason for the non-replacement of councillors is the same as with other NDCs, in that they cannot be found. "They tell you straight to your face they are not interested in local government. There is no money in it. You don't get paid and you just get insults from the people," says Joseph.

He feels those remaining on the council are genuine community development workers because "community development is what local government is all about and not politics."

Just before Christmas, Joseph says he tried to enlist the services of a young man whose name was submitted as a 1994 candidate but the young man said he was no longer interested.

Statutory meetings

Statutory meetings are held every second Monday in the month. Stabroek News attended the most recent meeting at which seven of the nine councillors attended along with the Overseer or chief executive of the council, Albertha Carmichael, and the Assistant Overseer, Carole Watts. Also present was the Regional Environmental Officer Ignatius Merai whose presence and advice at the meeting was found to be timely. After listening to the debate on priority funding for drainage, Merai's felt that the low-lying areas of Trafalgar, recently affected by the rains be given priority. He had visited the area when water was still on the land and felt there was need for more work to be done to ease the floodwaters. His opinion basically led to the decision that priority funding should be given to the area.

At the statutory meeting it was also announced that the NDC's $24 million estimate for capital and current expenditures for 2004 had been approved by the Regional Democratic Council (RDC).

Though there was none that day, the councillors explained that sometimes residents attended out of interest or if there is a problem within the community or they are invited. "Democracy rules here, you know", says Joseph.

Local government officers also attend statutory meetings regularly.

Development projects

On taking office in 1994, one of the first major projects the NDC initiated was the Northumberland water project in Bush Lot. Previously water was rationed and there was little water piped into the area. People walked for miles to obtain a bucket or a drum of water. "We had poor water supply, poor electricity, no telephones, poor everything. We were walking in mud. All the dams were mud dams. We used to walk in mud. We had the odd one in mud-brick. That is one of the significant things... the roads," says one resident.

Today the majority of the people in the villages receive potable water to their homes.

However, while power supply is regular, the absence of telephones in some communities is still a problem.

Most of the annual $3 million subvention is spent on drainage and irrigation and this was again borne out by Monday's meeting where some $1 million was earmarked for drainage and irrigation in the low-lying areas of Trafalgar, Golden Grove and Lovely Lass. Another $1 million was earmarked for the construction of a road.

Joseph said that with the help of Central Government through the Region Five administration, funding agencies such as the Social Impact Amelioration Project, the Basic Needs Trust Fund and the Canadian International Development Agency among others, the NDC, using its own resources, tried to develop proper roads. "The roads have improved 300% to 400% per cent in this NDC since taking office. I think that is a significant development", the NDC Chairman said.

During 1997, Stabroek News highlighted Hopetown and Bush Lot in the Window on Guyana series and found the roads were basically mud-dams with access virtually impossible during the rainy weather. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the use of a pair of Wellingtons was not needed on this occasion.

Carmichael says eight streets were built in Bush Lot, six in Hopetown, and five in Lovely Lass to give an idea of the work done. The most recent was an earthen embankment at Golden Grove, which is an improvement from the mud dams but which still has to be upgraded.

The NDC also built the street, called Church Dam or Cabbage Dam (depending on the part of the village in which you live), which runs from Union to Golden Grove.

In selecting the road to upgrade using the government subvention and funds collected from rates and taxes, it was interesting to note the rationale applied by the councillors and the advice given by the NDC staffers in arriving at a decision. A list of priorities is presented to the councillors from the Overseer and the council debates and makes its decision.

In terms of road construction, Joseph says the policy of the NDC is to build roads not to dig trenches and build dams so the dams would erode and go back to the trenches eventually. However, councillor Samuel McPherson feels strongly that there is need for good drainage so that the foundation of the roads is not undermined by rising water levels.

Drainage and Irrigation

The major complaint in the neighbourhood is drainage. People are generally pleased about roads and access except for the dams, which are being destroyed by cattle roaming the place for the want of fenced pastureland.

Joseph says most of the NDC's funds over the past four to five years has been spent on drainage and irrigation. In 1997 there was a huge flood that left losses totalling millions of dollars. Residents sought compensation from the government. It was described as the worst flood in 19 years and was compared to the floods of the 1930s.

Residents in seven of the NDC's villages suffered structural damage to their homes. The flood left widespread crop and livestock loss, a mosquito plague, contaminated water and skin and diarrhoeal diseases.

Floodwaters had been an annual horror story for some 20,000 subsistence farmers in the NDC and within Region Five for the previous five to six years.

Union/Naarstigheid at the time was described as a low-lying area with no inter-lot drains in the residential areas to connect to the NDC's system. There were a lot of promises by government officials to help alleviate the situation but nothing happened.

Taking matters into their own hands, the NDC embarked on a project of drainage for Union, Lovely Lass, Trafalgar and Golden Grove.

And over the last two years water was cleared off the land within hours. Carmichael says that "every year for the past four to five years we have been spending most of the $3 million (government) subvention on the drainage on the areas that really need it. We have also been supplementing this from rates collection."

She notes that those areas were underdeveloped because they only started coming under the local government system in the 1970s compared to Bush Lot and Hopetown which have been under the system since the 1940s.

What is left of the drainage and irrigation works is "earthen embankments that the people use for egress and ingress. They do not have streets so they are using them as access roads. There is a need for a lot of streets in those areas," says Carmichael, herself a resident of Trafalgar.

The councillors, noted that some farmers in the `back dams' are unable to use their "bona fide transported lands" because of flood waters coming from government-leased lands in the Mahaica, Mahaicony, Abary (MMA) land development scheme.

In the past the NDC tried to work along with the MMA to resolve this problem and would go regularly to the MMA office but to no avail.

Joseph says "the people can't plant. They can't work. I've been down there quite a number of times but I can't do anything. It's a waste of time. You attend meetings... you write letters... you speak with people from the MMA and you hope that they do something. They are constrained." The back of Hopetown, especially, he says, "is permanently flooded so people have stopped planting there."

Carmichael who has visited some of the areas said that coconut trees have died and residents are unable to plant cash crops. And because they are not using the land they do not want to pay rates.

NDC staff

The NDC has a staff of six including the overseer, assistant overseer and a watchman. The councillors say that the money the staff is paid is measly. They all say that they do a "fantastic job... are overworked and underpaid." One councillor says they "take insults from ignorant people but yet they got to show a magnitude of patience when dealing with ignorance. They have to be diplomatic when they know they are right and somebody in higher authority tell them that they are wrong and they can't do this and can't do that when they know they are right."

They feel that one of the first things local government reform should do should be to look at the salaries of staff because they are the main resource. Joseph says sometimes the staff goes months without pay because of the lack of funds. "People in other countries would not do that. I think it is a way of taking advantage of hardworking people - who are mainly women."

He says sometimes at estimates or budget presentations councillors get ticked off for staff spending. He feels that there should be a local government authority union to look at the issue of wages and salaries and conditions of work for local government workers.

Joseph says everybody gets a pay raise but that does not necessarily apply when increases in salaries for public servants are announced. He says recently public servants got a 5% increase but the local government staffers in the NDCs will not get that increase because they are not seen as public servants. "They tell you that you got to raise the increases from rates and taxes to pay them. And when you increase the salaries from the collection of rates they criticise you for spending it on staff wages. What kind of nonsense is that?"

However, Joseph spoke a little too soon about the NDC staffers being unable to get the increase because at the statutory meeting it was announced that the RDC had given approval for a 5% across-the-board increase in salaries with effect from January 2003 on condition that the NDC is able to meet the increases with its own funds. Even this announcement prompted one councillor to say "too lil' bit man!"

Rates and taxes

The Region Five RDC has approved increases in the rates based on its 2004 budgetary estimates of income and expenditure for the neighbourhood. The increases were announced in the Guyana Chronicle of December 19, 2003

The increase has been done in seven sections:

Section One - 15% of the appraised valuation on residential lots at Trafalgar

Section two - 15% of the appraised valuation on all buildings within in the neighbourhood.

Section Three - 18% of the appraised valuation on residential lots at Union

Section Four - 20% of the appraised valuation on residential lots at Golden Grove, East Half Bel Air, Firebrace, St John, West Half Bel Air, East Half Armadale, Catherina's Lust, Onderneeming, Naarstigheid, Onverwagt, East Half Lovely Lass, and West Half Lovely Lass.

Section Five - 33% of the appraised valuation on cultivation lots at Bush Lot and West Half Armadale.

Section Six - 30% of the appraised valuation on cultivation lots at Trafalgar and Lovely Lass

Section Seven - 50% of the appraised valuation on cultivation lots at Bel Air, Bush Lot, West Half Armadale, Firebrace and St John.

Assistant Overseer, Carole Watts says certain areas need more work hence the bigger increases.

For instance in the cultivation areas in Bush Lot and Bel Air the percentage increases are higher because the NDC is required to do more work in there.

In addition, Watts says the increases also depend on the valuation of the property. In Trafalgar a resident may pay $525 for the year for one house lot.

Stating that the increases are still inadequate to meet the demands of residents, Watts says the NDC tries to explain to citizens that paying $525 per year is even less than what a labourer would ask for to clean a drain outside the ratepayer's property one time. Yet the ratepayer would ask that the drain be cleaned several times a year.

With the increases, property owners at Union would now pay between $300 to $420 on a house lot for the year. This increase is based on the 1984 valuation. No valuation has been done since then. In addition, there has not been increased rates and taxes in the neighbourhood for the last three years.

Joseph says the increases for 2004 are unrealistic. At present there are new housing schemes, new houses built and new extensions but increases could only be determined based on the 1984 valuation exercise. He feels that the minimum per house lot should be $10,000 a year "then you can do some work and people would stop complaining about getting this and that done."

There is a new housing scheme being built at Fort Wellington, which formerly only housed the administrative centre for the region. Another scheme is being established at Naarstigheid.

Joseph says there needs to be a reality check. The NDC cannot get work done with a $200 a year subscription. He says there should also be commercial rates for business houses.

The NDC staffers note that there is only one valuation officer at the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development and none available at the level of the NDC or RDC. Joseph says they voiced their concern over and over again and even invited many people including members of the diplomatic community to their statutory meetings. He says they walk away shaking their heads.