Whittaker facing legal action over property tax waiver

-city lost $54M in revenue

Lawyers for City Hall have written to Minister of Local Government Norman Whittaker threatening legal action over his instruction to the Town Clerk to waive owe rates and taxes owed on a city property. City Hall says Whittaker ordered acting Town Clerk Carol Sooba to waive taxes amounting to $27M owed by Ganga Prasad and Sons Limited on the property located at 162 Charlotte and Wellington streets for the period 2002 to 2009.

The property, which formerly housed the Strand Cinema and has housed the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God since 2008, was also the subject of legal proceedings between City Hall and the proprietor for arrears of rates and taxes in the sum of $53,860,387.

However, according to a lawyer’s letter sent to Whittaker by attorney Nigel Hughes, on behalf of City Hall, the legal proceedings were withdrawn shortly after he issued the “order” to Sooba to waive the taxes.

Norman Whittaker
Norman Whittaker

The move by City Hall comes in wake of the disclosure that Whittaker, through a letter dated July 16th , 2014, instructed Sooba that he was ordering that the rates due on the property be waived by the City Council for the years 2002 to 2009, without any clear legal authority to do so. Attorney General Anil Nandlall earlier this year said that the Ministry of Local Government has no lawful power to waive rates and taxes. A copy of Whittaker’s letter, seen by Stabroek News, included a handwritten note by Sooba, dated July 18, 2014, advising the City Treasurer of the “ministerial order” and to make the required adjustment. Councillors have since indicated that they will move another no-confidence motion against Sooba and a motion of concern against the City Treasurer over their actions. In the letter to Whittaker, Hughes, City Hall yesterday requested Whittaker to identify the specific provisions of the amended Municipal and District Councils Act which he claims empowers him to waive taxes due to the city for the purposes identified in his letter. “We regret the necessity to point out that your failure to provide a response within six days of receipt hereof, will result in the commencement of legal proceedings against you for recovery of the financial losses you have caused the city of Georgetown as well as misfeasance in public office,” it said. According to Whittaker’s letter to Sooba, the petition for the waiver on rates and taxes was made by the proprietor and former Managing Director of Ganga Prasad and Sons Ltd, on the ground that from January 2002 to December 2009 he made the building available for use to the church to advance its religious work at no cost. He adds that the applicant asserted that all taxes/rates due to the council prior to 2002 had been paid in full by Ganga Prasad and Sons Ltd. “Our review of the powers vested in you as Minister of Local Government and Regional Development does not disclose any [law] which confers upon you the power to issue an order to the Town Clerk to waive outstanding taxes owed to the municipality for the purposes set out in your letter,” Hughes wrote. Further, he said his firm was advised that at the time the minister purported to issue the order, there was ongoing litigation brought by the Town Clerk on behalf of the city against Ganga Prasad and Sons Limited for arrears of rates and taxes. “These proceedings were withdrawn shortly after your issuance of the aforementioned order,” he added, while noting that as a result the city lost $53,860,387.

Stabroek News sought to contact Whittaker for comment yesterday regarding the letter but he was unavailable as he was said to be in Region Two.

In an earlier interview, Whittaker had told Stabroek News that “the Minister can waive rates and taxes under certain circumstances,” as a result of which no rates shall be payable. “I would grant them it (the waiver) if the council cannot give it to them,” he said. He cited the Section 212 (a) Municipal and District Councils Act as the law that permitted him to grant waivers on rates and taxes.

However, Section 212(2) of the Act suggests that the minister’s power is restricted to designating properties exempt from paying rates and taxes.

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