Tourism Ministry grilled by public accounts body over taxi costs

-PS says new vehicles sought as solution

By Chevy Devonish

A team headed by Permanent Secretary, Willet Hamilton from the Ministry of Tourism, Industry and Commerce was chastised on Monday by members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) for paying large sums of cash to hire taxis to carry out what was said to be official ministry business.

The criticism came after the Auditor General’s (AG) report for the fiscal year ending 2010 stated that up to the end of that year, the ministry continued to incur significant costs in the hiring of taxis, even though it  had two vehicles assigned to the ministry’s administration. The report stated that the Ministry had expended the sum of $13.761 Million in 2009, whilst for 2010 it expended the sum of $10.047 Million.

Willet Hamilton

Despite the decrease in expenditure in 2010 from 2009, Government Chief Whip Gail Teixeira made the remark that the Ministry of Tourism, though, one of the smaller government institutions, is clearly outspending much larger ministries, and that the situation as it stood was unacceptable.

She also asked why, despite having two vehicles, the ministry was spending so much on taxis. Hamilton stated that the two vehicles responsible for ferrying ministry staff were simply insufficient. He said that one of the two vehicles was assigned to the Minister for his exclusive use, while the other was used by members of the minister’s secretariat.

This was for the period ending 2010. The Minister at that time was Manniram Prashad. Hamilton added that on special occasions; when the ministry is coordinating national events such as GuyExpo and the Main Big Lime the use of taxis tends to go up. He said that the expenditure was not as a result of misuse or abuse of the option, but reflects the scale of the national events, and as such justified the multimillion dollar expense.

Gail Teixeira

When asked what, if any, measures had been put in place to ensure this option was not abused, Hamilton stated that several departments within the ministry had the responsibility of overlooking the soliciting of taxi cabs to ensure that the use was necessary. To this, Teixeira stated that she was not convinced that enough was being done to monitor the use of taxis, and recommended that a better system be put in place. She also suggested that instead of using cars to carry out particular tasks such as delivering letters or paying bills, the ministry should utilize office assistants with motor bikes and/or bicycles, which is far cheaper and would definitely mitigate the cost being incurred.

PPP/C MP Bibi Shadick suggested that the ministry contract a particular taxi service, and institute a system where receipts are signed and transport documented, as opposed to the hiring of random cars on demand.

When asked what plans are being put in place to reduce the high costs associated with the use of taxis, considering that from 2009-2010 it cost the ministry an average of $9,604,852 for staff to conduct official ministry business, Hamilton stated that the ministry has requested funds for the procurement of three vehicles for next year, and plans to make additional requests in 2014 for the procurement of 3 or 4 additional vehicles.

In their response to the Auditor General’s report, the ministry stated that if they were able to acquire at least five new vehicles at the total cost of $17,000,000 it would reduce costs. It further stated that the acquisition of fuel and lubricants for their vehicles would total about $5,760,000 which means that the ministry would end up saving approximately $3,644,852 each year.

PPP/C member Manzoor Nadir, a former Minister of Tourism,  expressed his skepticism that the cost projected would be cut. Nadir said that the two vehicles in the possession of the ministry were 10 and 12 years only and incurred a cost of approximately $4,000,000 to repair in 2010. He recommended that these vehicles would need to be retired as soon as possible because of their high maintenance cost, and would therefore leave the ministry with two less vehicles.

Teixeira also urged the Permanent Secretary to enquire as to which members of his senior or middle management staff are eligible for duty-free concessions as this would facilitate them acquiring their own vehicles, and further alleviate the ministry’s financial burdens.

The committee also discussed an instance where four employees were overpaid salaries totalling $165,139. According to the Auditor General’s report, the services of the individuals were terminated with immediate effect. Two of the former employees had walked off the job while the ministry chose not to renew the contracts of the other two.

The report also stated that the ministry was able to recover the sum of $72,679 through the non-payment of the salary increase for 2010 to two of the employees, leaving a balance of $83,526.

This report prompted Shadick to ask how payments could be made to individuals who were apparently no longer employed by the ministry. When asked to justify the payments, the Permanent Secretary was not able to provide a definitive answer.

Hamilton was also called to answer questions about why two cheques totalling $5,027,000 for the year 2010 were not paid to the payee. According to Hamilton, of the total amount, $5,007,000 was for payment to a consultancy company contracted to generate plans for an industrial estate in Lethem. He stated that the company had completed the works agreed upon and was subsequently presented with a certificate of satisfaction but that the company never turned up to collect its payment. This, he said, led to the funds being paid back into the Consolidated Fund. He further stated that the funds are now in the process of being paid over.

However, the Finance Secretary, Neermal Rekha stated at the PAC meeting that the cheque was vetoed initially because upon examination of works done, they found that documentation for the project was not adequate and not submitted by the allotted time.

Hamilton seemed unable to explain this difference in accounts which prompted Committee member Volda Lawrence to suggest that Hamilton may have been trying to mislead the PAC but that she hoped that that not the case. As Hamilton continued to struggle to explain this inconsistency, he was encouraged to ascertain the facts surrounding this situation so that it could be adequately dealt with at the next PAC meeting.

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