Georgetown Mayor Hamilton Green yesterday said that he has approached Crime Chief Leslie James to launch an investigation into the actions of Local Government Minister Norman Whittaker, who last month ordered a waiver on rates totalling $27 million on a city property, prompting accusations that he acted outside his legal authority.
At a press conference yesterday, Green disclosed that he and Deputy Mayor Patricia Chase-Green and Councilor Ranwell Jordan met with James yesterday. “I left the letter the Minister sent to [acting Town Clerk Carol] Sooba to begin the investigations,” Green said.
Whittaker, by way of a letter on July 16th, 2014, had instructed Sooba that he was ordering that the rates due on the property, which currently houses the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God at Charlotte and Wellington streets, be waived by the council for the years 2002 to 2009.
The minister went on to state that the petition for the waiver on the rates and taxes was made by the proprietor and former Managing Director of Ganga Prasad and Sons Ltd, on the ground that he made the building available for use to the church to advance its religious work at no cost.
Green, however, said that he found it unbelievable that Prasad would “make available for years to this non-Guyanese Christian group a substantial building without paying a rent.” He added, “I take that with a grain of salt.”
According to him, the matter engaged the City Council’s attention several years ago and is still before the court. “Up come Sooba and the Minister and grants a waiver of $27 million. In his letter, the honourable Minister goes out of his way to state that the occupant of the building… had not been paying rent for a number of years,” he noted.
Further, he said that even if the arrangement was the case, it would be completely irrelevant since the right ultimately to decide on the waiving of taxes or interests lies with the City Council. He added that in order for the building to qualify for a waiver, it must be owned by the church or non-profit organisation. “This building was at all times owned by a businessman, Ganga Prasad. So, on the leg that the Minister is insinuating, it is a complete non-sequitur, an absurdity,” Green stated.
Whittaker, in his letter, states that the order was made by virtue of the authority vested in him by the Municipal and District Councils Act, although the basis for his claim has been questioned since the law specifically provides for the council to grant waivers. In addition, in February this year Attorney General Anil Nandlall said that the Ministry of Local Government has no lawful power to waive Rates and Taxes. “All or any matter in relation to the collection of Rates and Taxes falls within the remit and authority of the Georgetown Mayor and City Council,” he wrote in a letter published in Stabroek News.
Meanwhile, Deputy Mayor Chase-Green said that the council has its suspicions due to the fact that two separate individuals applied for waivers on rates and taxes for the building.
“There was an application by an Anand Prasad in April, 2012 for the waiver of rates and taxes. It was found at the Finance Committee meeting that judgment was obtained by the court for $10 million for the Strand Cinema,” she explained.
“However, Mr. Anand Prasad appealed the decision. Why we are suspicious is that on the same building, at the same lot that we won the case and they were told to pay us $10 million, it was appealed by Mr. Anand Persaud and there goes a Mr. Ganga Prasad and Sons Ltd. applying to the Minister for waiver of interest for the years 2002 to 2009. Same building that we took to court. So, that is why this council has to be suspicious. Two different people apply… when we dealt with it in 2012 it was clearly stated that Mr. Anand Prasad was receiving a rent,” she added.
Chase-Green also argued that the standard operating procedures of the council were not followed. “They go behind our back to get a waiver in excess of $27 million dollars. Not wanting to pay the council $10 million… you have appealed that and go through the back door, under the table to try to get a waiver. Well, I as Deputy Mayor and we will not stand for that,” she declared.
Meanwhile, Jordan proceeded to tell reporters that it is clear that the Municipal and District Councils Act has been breached. Further, he said that the council at a meeting on Monday will move a no-confidence motion against Sooba and a motion of concern against the city treasurer.
“This could be the last straw that broke the camel’s back,” he stated.