So finally we have the confession from the horse’s mouth. The citizenry has known the truth all along, of course; but to secure an unforced admission from the government was something which no one could have anticipated. As everyone knows by now when Minister of Local Government Kellawan Lall was asked on Wednesday whether government would prefer to spend millions on a health crisis rather than try and help the city council, he replied: “Well, if there is a health crisis in the city I’ll be glad because it will remove the city council. They’ll be responsible for it.” So in other words, the lives of residents are being put at risk in order for the administration to achieve a political objective, namely, the control of the city before the 2011 general elections. And this is what the constant cycle of garbage crises has been about all along. The least that one can say about the government’s attitude is that it is callous, cynical and utterly irresponsible.
In an attempt to mitigate Minister Lall’s extraordinary remarks, Minister of Health Leslie Ramsammy was reported as saying that they came out wrong. Well, yes indeed. On all counts. “I’m sure Minister Lall doesn’t want to see that there is a big health problem in our city,” he explained, “but what he really meant is should that happen, then that is enough reason to say enough is enough.”
Unfortunately for Mr Lall, while this is a more benign interpretation of his comments, it is still reflective of a gross irresponsibility. What kind of government is it, one wonders, that even if it does not wish a health crisis on the besieged citizens of the capital, is still prepared to sit back and take the risk that one might happen? And if, perchance, one did happen, would the government organize itself at that point to provide the funds to the city council to remove the refuse? Apparently not. Minister Ramsammy would seem to suggest that the government would still use it as an excuse to move in and impose its own Interim Management Committee on the city – at which point, of course, the funds would miraculously appear to clear the garbage and pay the contractors. So is there a big difference in terms of outcome, one wonders, between wishing a health crisis on the city and risking one unnecessarily? They both give off the same odour of political games played (albeit at different levels) with people’s health and possibly even their lives.
Minister Lall treated the media to his usual smorgasbord of governmental excuses in relation to City Hall and why the administration should not intervene over the garbage crisis. The government spent hundreds of millions in the city, he said, and all the council had to do was clean the drains, pick up rubbish and look after the markets – “and they can’t do that.” How much money the government is currently spending in the city is a pure red herring of course. Surely the priority in a tropical environment (or any environment) is the collection of rubbish, so why isn’t that at the head of the administration’s ‘to do’ list in Georgetown if it is prepared to allocate funds for so many other things? The reason is, that this is the area which can provoke the biggest crisis which would allow them to step in and take direct control.
So what must the council do before the government would help it? According to the Minister it should cut its staff. Most of the money collected by the municipal authorities, he said, was for salaries, wages and running offices. The Mayor must deal with two issues, he continued: raising more money and “more importantly dealing with the spending of 85% of the income on the present administration.” The first one is an old complaint; the second is new. How Mr Lall can continue to berate City Hall about raising more money is nothing short of breathtaking. Everyone is aware that his government has not only stymied every revenue-earning scheme that the council has ever proposed, but has even removed some money-making areas from the control of the city council, such as the car park. And as for collecting from delinquent rate-payers, the impediments in the way of applying the sanction of parate execution has been explained in more than one letter to this newspaper by attorney-at-law Mr Leon Rockliffe. But still, his cynicism undiminished, the Minister continues his diatribe about City Hall collecting more money.
It is common knowledge, even to Mr Lall who has copies of all the various reports and inquiries, that the municipal authorities simply do not have enough revenue to discharge their functions. And as for staffing, Mayor Green was reported in our edition yesterday as saying that those employees who retired were not replaced and that in any event, “the staff now employed if provided with the materials will be inadequate to provide the services we are required to provide.” There is reason to believe that this is accurate. So all the Minister is doing is casting around for any old excuse for the government not to facilitate by some means or other the collection of garbage.
During the previous crises the government has haggled about how much it owed in rates and taxes before eventually coughing up enough to allow the contractors to be paid and the refuse to be cleared. This time around too we have the familiar reprise of how much is owed and when it is due. Mayor Green put the figure at $100 million; Minister Lall maintained that this in fact was for the whole year and that two payments had been made already. Assuming the Minister is correct, the average citizen would ask why another payment could not be made now, since we have passed the middle of the year already. Needless to say, the intrepid Minister had an answer for that. There was no formal agreement in place as to when the government should pay, he said; it had to be worked out between the city council and the Ministry of Finance.
It is hard to believe that grown-up men can talk such nonsense, let alone someone who holds a responsible position in government. Why is a formal agreement necessary? When the rates and taxes become due, they become due. Would Minister Lall please go immediately and winkle Minister Ashni Singh out of his air-conditioned office, and then lead him on a walking tour around the city so he can get the full malodorous impact of what residents are enduring. Then, perhaps, he might be persuaded of the urgency of government paying up whatever taxes are owed to the municipality.
No one is suggesting that the city council is an efficient body, but Minister Lall and the government by holding it to ransom – and in the process, the citizens too – make it the victim. This time, the true story really did jump out from the Minister’s open mouth, and the only thing for the government to do to redeem itself at this stage, would be for it to ensure that the funds are there to pay the contractors to clear the garbage mountain. And they really can’t afford to play this little game again, because if it so happened that what they either wanted or have been risking occurred, ie, a health crisis in the capital, there could be no doubt whatsoever about who should take the blame – and it would not be the city council.