The government’s contribution to the city has to be put in its proper context

Dear Editor,

On Friday, March 19, at City Hall, President Jagdeo with an impressive coterie of high functionaries, ministers, and the media announced what was slated as a substantial contribution to the city. At that ceremony, on behalf of councillors and citizens, I expressed gratitude, and again, publicly this letter is one of thankfulness.

Allow me to follow the lead from the wisdom of the President. In elaborating on the global financial/economic situation and Guyana, he observed quite adroitly that we must view issues in their correct context − wise words! Let us therefore examine the city and his generosity in the correct context. One can do no better than to quote from the Chronicle editorial of Friday, March 20, and one can assume a nexus with this donation from the government.

It began: “Local Government plays a pivotal role in deepening and widening the democratic process and solving problems affecting people at the community level, and therefore, it is of paramount importance to have functioning vibrant, effective and efficient local government bodies.”  It continues: Devon Dick writing in the Jamaica Gleaner (December 4, 2007) notes: ‘Historically the vestry (now parish council) was responsible for local education and health institutions. It had to administer roads, support the parish church, regulate the markets, license retailers, direct the local police, and care for paupers and levy taxes to support these tasks. Unfortunately the parish councils have been stripped of most of those responsibilities.’”

Interesting, here in Guyana, it was recognized even before the government came into office in 1992, that there was need tor a radical overhaul (reform) of the local government system; the intention was to give local authorities an opportunity to manage their affairs, to raise money and so release the creative energies of its citizens. Of course the nation’s capital will always be a special case, being the largest and oldest.

The main opposition and other political parties in parliament, civil society and our religious leaders must say that the perception many of us now have is that the present administration has no real interest in shared democratic governance, but is quite comfortable with the existing system of absolute control of money and management of the municipality! Georgetown is the classic case with the many examples so often given.

It is important to deal with these two important issues − money and management. In passing, in spite of what the President said I agree fully with Freddie Kissoon’s letter in Friday’s Kaieteur News when he notes the unsatisfactory condition of the city; I am afraid even to talk of the cemetery, which is in ‘shambles.’

When this government appointed an IMC to manage the city for six months in 1994, for obvious reasons, it was given massive institutional and financial support, not to mention preparations for the visit of Queen Elizabeth II.  That IMC determined that the existing tax base was too narrow to provide a satisfactory service to the residents of Georgetown and recommended new sources of revenue.

Upon assuming office, I accepted this wisdom and sought to secure the cooperation of government to implement measures to broaden our revenue base. This included projects that would not necessarily place an additional burden on the government or citizens, such as a lottery. I was told that the government could not consider a lottery for fear that the religious community would object. The rest is history.

At every opportunity, and in every way we sought to nudge the government in this direction, and also, to release a stranglehold on the recruitment and disciplining of staff. Recall when we dismissed two errant koker attendants, we were ordered to have them reemployed. By way of example, the full council at a statutory meeting in December 1999 unanimously took a decision to again raise with government issues of general concern. On December 16, 1999, I wrote the  Minister responsible for Local Government seeking dialogue on the following issues: proposals for a container tax; a percentage of registration and licence fees for vehicles; the transfer of some portion of the environmental tax to the city council since we collect and dispose of 260 tons of waste daily, some of it generated from areas outside Georgetown; municipal parking arrangements; the establishment of a port authority; a municipal lottery; the construction of a crematorium; a new valuation of properties; a ticket system for municipal violations and a municipal court; support for our request for GPL to pay a fee for the poles planted on parapets, which are owned by us and which are our responsibility to maintain.

When discussions with GPL management were well advanced, an order came from ‘above’ saying we could not collect any fee.

To date, we have had no movement on any of these issues intended to secure the integrity and viability of the Georgetown municipality; instead, the biblical injunction has been the case − “even the little that he has shall be taken from him.”

Without notice, the government seized a money-making car park which the council had been managing for almost two decades, and the government’s intervention prevented us signing a contract with a developer for parking meters in the city intended to bring some semblance of order to parking in the central business district of Georgetown, and earn us some revenue.

I was at pains when I graciously thanked the President on Thursday to remind him that to properly maintain the 644.5 miles of earthen and concrete drains and the 102.36 miles of alleyways alone would cost us some $50M per month. Being woefully short of cash, we have not achieved this ideal. It costs us $5M whenever we have to desilt Irving and Church Street canals as a direct result of the discharge of sludge from the Shelter Belt operations. Appeals to GWI to defray this expense have so far been ignored with no support from the Minister.

As we express our gratitude, it is necessary to remind citizens that we have responsibility for 160 miles of roads; approximately 800 miles of concrete and earthen drains; 11 outfall channels; bridges; miles of parapets; collection and disposal of waste; street lighting; public parks and open spaces; five municipal markets; the management of the building code; maternal and child welfare; public health; control of animals; maintenance of law and order; and a cemetery.

The big issue, of course, is the statement made in the said Chronicle editorial, that they will refer the question of reform to parliament for resolution. Since the PPP has the majority in parliament, this has signalled another dent in democracy, as we march merrily along the road to hegemony, perhaps better put by some of our friends, as an elected dictatorship. I hope that civil society, human rights advocates, religious bodies and our political leaders will break their silence on this important issue of governance in Guyana.

On Thursday, I said that ingratitude is the worst of vices. I again express gratitude to the government, but thought it necessary to put our situation in the appropriate context. The silence from some friends who claim to be the guardians of justice and truth I hope is not a result of their frailties, or the fear of those who now exercise power over us. For man’s worst enemy is fear. Remember this, “Fear may keep a man out of danger, but courage can support him in it.”

Yours faithfully,
Hamilton Green, JP

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