$46m ‘Ochi’ clean-up project under scrutiny, hits national spotlight
A $46 million COVID-19 clean-up project for the St Ann Municipal Corporation to sanitise public spaces in Ocho Rios has irked People's National Party (PNP) councillors in the parish, who have threatened to report the matter to the auditor general if clarity is not provided on the funding of the work and how it was carried out.
The Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF) financed the project, but details of the arrangements are unclear, and the same appears to be the case with the execution of the work 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 Thursday, its Chairman, St Ann's Bay Mayor, Michael Belnavis, in whose Ocho Rios division the work was done, has 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 Wednesday's sitting of Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC).
Speaking at the PAAC meeting, Chairman Dr Wykeham McNeill, noted the disagreement at the municipal corporation regarding how the money was spent.
Additionally, McNeill, who is also the Opposition Spokesman on Tourism, said there were several questions that have arisen in relation to the funds, including why the allocation was given by the TEF to one parish.
"There seems what appears to be a one-off payment to the St Ann Municipal Council (Corporation). We have not been advised of any other municipal council (corporation) being so blessed, and quite frankly, one has to look into it and see whether it is part of a broader policy initiative or how this decision was arrived at," McNeill indicated.
"And furthermore, $46 million is a lot of money and therefore we need to find out what it was spent on and how the contractual arrangements were made, because quite frankly, we have to ensure as a primary concern of this committee, that we get value for money," he added.
He said the relevant officials from the agencies will be invited to the next sitting of the PAAC to explain the multi-million-dollar expenditure.
"There are enough questions to be answered (so) that this (PAAC) committee should invite the Ministry of Local Government and representatives from the St Ann Municipal Council (Corporation) to have a discussion about that which was termed as an emergency clean-up for COVID(-19)," McNeill said.
Dr Wykeham McNeill
"Where we see things that raise a red flag... we have to as a committee look at it and nip these things in the bud if there is something to nip, but we have to provide oversight to ensure transparency," he further asserted.
At last Thursday's monthly meeting of the St Ann Municipal Corporation, Councillor Winston Brown who is the minority leader, sought to find answers in relation to the scope of work that was done through the COVID-19 clean-up campaign of public spaces in Ocho Rios.
He lamented that despite posing questions regarding the works, neither Belnavis nor the chief executive officer of the corporation were providing the required answers.
At the same meeting, another PNP Councillor, Ian Bell of the Beecher Town Division, questioned the price tag of the area that was selected.
"Why was Ocho Rios area chosen to spend $46 million for a cleaning up of Ochi (Ocho Rios) when everywhere in the parish is of concern to COVID-19?" Bell questioned.
The mayor, who was in the hot seat, sought to address the issue by stating that Ocho Rios had several areas, including the craft markets, which required sanitisation.
"Now I'm talking about Ocho Rios which has several craft markets; Old Craft Market, Pineapple Craft Market; we have the regular craft market... There are three craft markets right and over a thousand vendors in the craft markets right," Belnavis stated.
Despite the mayor's insistence that the procurement procedures were followed, and that there was good value for money, the PNP councillors had more questions. They wanted to know who was the contractor, how was the contract awarded, and what was the scope of the work done? The answers, however, were not forthcoming.
The meeting then disintegrated into a verbal brawl with threats that the auditor general would be called if the issue was not properly addressed.
Following the meeting, Belnavis, in a media interview, said the PNP members should concentrate on being "good representatives of the people", and described their actions as "a political agenda at this time because elections in their minds".
The mayor said the funds were dedicated to be spent on a tourism product, hence the reason why Ocho Rios, one of the largest resort areas in the island, was chosen to be sanitised.