Tuesday 19 November, 2019

McKenzie defends Local Gov’t Ministry’s costly move up Hagley Park Rd

File photo

File photo

Employees being robbed at gunpoint, cramped and unhealthy office space, along with noise from a nearby betting shop and a nightclub that was situated on the same plaza in which a Government ministry was located, were the reasons cited for the decision to relocate the Ministry of Local Government and Community Development at 85 Hagley Park Road in St Andrew.

This was after more than 15 years at the location.

The relocation has come with a hefty price-tag, as the Government will be spending $76 million per year, or $380 million over five years, effective December 2016, for the ministry to occupy leased premises at 61 Hagley Park Road.

This was disclosed by the portfolio Minister, Desmond McKenzie, as he answered questions last week in the House of Representatives. The questions were posed by Opposition Spokesperson on Local Government, Dr Angela Brown-Burke, who wanted to know whether the deal was the best offer on the table.

Brown-Burke noted that in addition to the $380 million, some $200 million was already spent to renovate the leased building.

In seeking to justify the expenditure, McKenzie said the ministry previously occupied cramped quarters at 85 Hagley Park Road, in a plaza owned by the Commissioner of Lands. The minister told the House that employees were frequently robbed, including at gunpoint, thus creating a security issue. Additionally, he said every week an employee had his or her motor vehicle damaged.

The minister said the matter was compounded by the noise that emanated from a betting shop that is immediately adjacent to the offices that were previously occupied by the ministry, while a nightclub is located inside the same plaza.

McKenzie said there were also health and privacy concerns.

“You couldn’t hold a private meeting in the minister’s office, as anyone standing outside could listen to what was being said,” he indicated.

The minister told the House that following observations, security checks and recommendations, it was determined that the location was not suited for the ministry’s operation, and that the operation had outgrown the location. He said as an example, there were days when staff reported for work and there was no parking available for them.

McKenzie admitted that the amount of money that has been, and will be spent, is significant. However, he stressed that the challenges were too much for the ministry to have continued to operate from the old site. He said the relocation is already showing positive results, as it has “enabled, among other things, the effective, efficient operation and functioning of the ministry and the board of supervision.”

The local government minister added that the relocation has led to the “removal or significant reduction of a clear security risk to the ministry’s staff and visitors, (has resulted in) adequate and suitable parking, significant reduction in the issues surrounding security where previously staff and external stakeholders experienced challenges visiting the former location.”

Since the relocation, staff morale and productivity have gone up, the minister said.

Meanwhile, the old ministry offices are now occupied by members of the Jamaica Fire Brigade (JFB), an agency that had been given notice for 20 of the 25 years it occupied the United Nations building at 14 Port Royal Street in downtown Kingston.

When asked by former Local Government Minister, Noel Arscott, if the location that was unsafe for the ministry is now safe for fire brigade personnel to occupy, McKenzie said the firefighters were not forced to occupy the premises. He said they had also conducted their own inspection of the premises before moving there.

In the meantime, McKenzie told the House that he would not comment at present on the findings of the Auditor General’s Department concerning the operations of the ministry.

According to the AG’s report, the ministry entered into the $76 million per annum five-year lease agreement effective December 1, 2016. It paid $132.3 million in rent between the signing of the lease agreement and occupation of the building since 2018. However, the ministry “did not independently verify the square footage of the area rented, but relied on an appraisal dated January 15, 2016, which was commissioned by the landlord,” the AG’s report stated.

"The lease agreement stipulates 40,000 square feet of rentable space. However, arising from our request, the National Land Agency (NLA) confirmed that the area actually measured only 38,130.81 square feet or some 1,870 square feet less than the amount stipulated in the agreement," the report said.

The auditor general said steps should be taken to recover the amount being overpaid for the area that has been leased.

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