…but does not know where land is situated
A conundrum arose before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Monday, when it was revealed that in 2016, the Central Housing and Planning Authority (CH&PA) shelled out $1 billion for land but does not know where it is located.
CH&PA’s acting Finance Director, Reaze Abrahim, was placed in the hot seat when he was asked by PAC Member Juan Edghill about expenditure for housing development. He related that $1 billion was paid to the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) back in 2016.
When probed further as to where this land was located, he however could not provide that information. Though he made a commitment to provide this information by today, this did not find favour with the PAC.
“I don’t mind getting answers tomorrow (today),” Edghill informed the Committee, noting however, “but if I’m the Finance Director of an entity and I sign off on part of a contract that paid $1 billion, I must have an idea if the land is on the East Coast, East Bank, Essequibo, Linden, Corentyne. I must get an idea of where these lands were and are you in possession of the land.”
In response, the accounting officer related that “The land was purchased; however ownership has not transferred as yet. As such, we did not receive the list of areas according to accounting standards. Ownership has to be transferred until we receive that title or transport.”
This prompted Edghill to query whether the CH&PA at the time of the purchase, had an agreement containing details of the parcels of land. Edghill noted that this would include how many acres and price per acre. At this point, Permanent Secretary Emil McGarrell came to the defence of the financial officer, pointing out that a commitment was made to supply the information at a later date. PAC member Nigel Dharamlall interjected.
“I’m still shuddering at this billion-dollar transaction. I can’t imagine that CH&PA would pay $1 billion out for land that it does not know where the land is. Don’t you find that anomaly very stunning?” he asked McGarrell.
“The officer indicated that he does not know as the Finance Director yet as to the location, the price per acre, the quantum of acreage until such time the legal paperwork is completed. So my question still stands. Don’t you find it startling that CH&PA paid for land it cannot identify?”
Dharamlall’s questions did not move the Permanent Secretary, who reiterated that the information would be provided in due course. The CH&PA also caught flak from PAC member Charandass Persaud, who chided them for the slow rate of housing development.
When asked how many of the 1000 housing units slated to be constructed from $80 million in 2016 have been completed, the response was 24 houses. The Ministry did not have any information of the actual cost for the houses.
“I am a little confused. We have been told that so many millions were expended to put 1000 units together. Over a period of time, monies were allocated for labour and material. And only 24 units have been handed over? Is it that only 24 units have been completed or the rest of it will be handed over at a later date?”
“Are we just working with one contractor or a number of contractors to complete these units? I have a difficulty. If you have the money, materials have been purchased, why can’t we finish off 1000 houses in two years?” Charandass questioned.
Abrahim clarified that 52 houses were completed for 2017. The officer could not clarify the exact building methodology being used, but McGarrell noted that the CH&PA changed its approach from hiring workers to contracting out work; due to the inefficient work.
The CH&PA, which is faced with the problem of steadily declining land availability in Region Four (Demerara-Mahaica), has embarked on a project called ‘Housing Solution 2017 and Beyond’. The entity has already identified plans for housing projects in Regions Two (Pomeroon-Supenaam), Five (Mahaica-Berbice), Six (East Berbice-Corentyne) and Ten (Upper Demerara-Berbice).
GuySuCo, which has for some time been bogged down by billions of dollars in debt, is currently engaged in divesting its assets to get much needed cash. At present, the National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL) Special Purpose Unit is in charge of this process, with international firm PriceWaterHouse Coopers valuating its assets. GuySuCo was tasked with identifying its own lands or assets to be divested.
At the time of the news, however, Government was accused by the parliamentary Opposition of using a slush fund, at the level of CH&PA, to make the billion-dollar GuySuCo land purchases; a practise it was once critical of while in Opposition.