Thursday 9 July, 2020

TEF defends $46.8 million COVID-19 clean-up allocation to St Ann MC

Dr Wykeham McNeill (file photo)

Dr Wykeham McNeill (file photo)

The Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF) has sought to defend its allocation of over $46 million to the St Ann Municipal Corporation to sanitise public spaces in Ocho Rios, St Ann, citing that other municipal corporations have applied for similar COVID-19-related clean-up projects, but the St Ann application was among the earliest received.

A breakdown of the expenditure of the St Ann project included approximately $10 million being reportedly spent to clean and sanitise the Ocho Rios Market, and $7.5 million spent on the Island Village complex, to sanitise handrails, gates and seating, among other things there.

Over $2 million was also spent on sanitisation efforts at the Turtle River Park in the resort town, while approximately $9 million was spent to clean areas of the Ocho Rios Pier.

The $46 million COVID-19 clean-up project for Ocho Rios irked People's National Party (PNP) councillors in St Ann, who threatened to report the matter to the auditor general if clarity was not provided on the funding of the work and how it was carried out.

The TEF financed the project, but details of the arrangements were unclear last month, and the same appeared to be the case with the execution of the works that were involved.

In response to the threat and other issues relative to the sanitisation project which was first raised at the monthly meeting of the municipal corporation last month, its Chairman, St Ann's Bay Mayor, Michael Belnavis, in whose Ocho Rios division the work was done, dismissed the concerns of the PNP councillors as a "political agenda". He also insisted that the applicable procurement guidelines were followed.

But the project caught the attention of a sitting of Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) on May 20. At that meeting, the committee wanted clarity on why the allocation was given by the TEF to one parish.

At Wednesday's PAAC meeting, Permanent Secretary in the Tourism Ministry, Jennifer Griffiths, sought to bring clarity to the allocation to the St Ann local authority by the TEF.

She explained that the request for funding to mitigate against COVID-19 was not only for Ocho Rios, as other St Ann towns had initially been incorporated in the clean-up project. She said the TEF, however, only approved the funding for the portion of the work in the resort town of Ocho Rios.

"The project document that came to TEF in fact spoke about maintenance and rehabilitation of tourism areas and the document requested funding for a number of areas; Ocho Rios, St Ann's Bay, Brown's Town and Discovery Bay," Griffiths explained.

"The request came for $77,269,841.08 (from the St Ann Municipal Corporation). The board of the TEF reviewed the request and, in fact, approved $46,851,105.30 for the town of Ocho Rios only. The $30 million for the other three towns was not approved in that request," she further indicated.

It was not made clear why the money that was requested for the other towns was not approved, or whether the works in the other towns in St Ann will be done in the future.

The permanent secretary said the main aim of the project was "to conduct sanitisation (and) deep cleaning works for public spaces in the resort town of Ocho Rios to include, Island Village, the Ocho Rios Pier, Main Street, Turtle River Park, Ocean Village, Ocho Rios town centre, Ocho Rios Market, White River and Fisherman's Beach. These were the areas covered in the $46 million project."

Griffiths told PAAC Chairman, Dr Wykeham McNeill, that in relation to the procurement and the awarding of the contract to a company to conduct the clean-up project, the St Ann Municipal Corporation would have that responsibility.

When McNeill enquired as to why Ocho Rios was "singled out" as the only tourism area to benefit from the funding to conduct sanitisation and deep cleaning works, the permanent secretary said there was no intention of focusing on one area.

"I don't know if there was a singling out, but this is what came to the board (of the TEF)," Griffiths suggested.

In seeking to bring further clarity on the selection of Ocho Rios, Director of Projects at the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF), Johan Rampair, said the request for St Ann was one of the first to be received, and as such, the Ocho Rios aspect of it was approved early.

He said the fund is examining requests for other COVID-19 clean-up projects from other municipal corporations, including St Catherine, Kingston and St Andrew and St Elizabeth.

Michael Belnavis

"One of the things that we are considering with the remainder of the projects is actually the level of funding, because it was discussed and we are investigating what is the level of funding from the municipal (corporations) through the Ministry of Local Government, to determine if the projects that we actually have investigating now needs that support, based on the requests they have, and the funding that they have from central government, which is the Ministry of Finance, which has done COVID-19 clean-ups," Rampair stated.

"So is a panic why you just write off $46 million and gave to one parish council?" enquired PAAC member, Mikael Phillips.

Rampair responded by indicating that Ocho Rios had a need due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"When you look at a panic, when any resort area has a need, and COVID-19 was a need that arose very quickly, we responded as such. Truth be told, we look at it now that we have many requests and we want to investigate thoroughly that expenditure was met," he stated.

Griffiths went on to indicate that the TEF will be reviewing its budget, emphasising that not all towns in other parishes will be sansitised.

"St Ann came out of the blocks first, but we are looking broadly now at what is reasonable, given the budget that is available," she indicated.

Meanwhile, representatives of the St Ann Municipal Corporation were also present at the PAAC meeting, and questions were posed at them regarding the Ocho Rios COVID-19 clean-up project.

The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the corporation, Rovel Morris, said given the context of COVID-19 and the urgency to sansitise the areas, the project was implemented under the emergency contract option. This, he said, facilitated direct contracting as set out by the Public Sector Procurement Handbook.

The $46.8 million contract was awarded to Rahim Cleaning and Trucking Limited, based in Cross Roads, St Andrew, to carry out cleaning and sanitising works at the specified locations in Ocho Rios, St Ann.

However, the money that was spent to sansitise the locations was described as being "quite inflated" by the PAAC Chairman.

It was noted that the cost to sanitise and clean the Ocho Rios Pier, for example, was said to be $9 million. The work there involved sanitisation of handrails, gates, doors, gate handles and door handles.

But the St Ann Municipal Corporation's Deputy CEO, Xavier Munroe, sought to explain that the cost of chemicals, the use of equipment and labour had to be factored in.

At the end of the PAAC meeting, McNeill suggested that the Integrity Commission or another agency with expertise on contract-related matters should be asked to examine the $46.8 million contract that was awarded to the St Andrew-based cleaning company.

The Local Government Ministry, through its Permanent Secretary, Marsha Henry-Martin, indicated at the PAAC meeting that its chief internal auditor is to examine the project.

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