The Head of the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) yesterday defended an arrangement with a Chinese firm for the construction of a car park on the Lamaha Street embankment amid concerns about the propriety of the arrangement.
Following queries by Stabroek News last week, it was revealed that controversial Chinese firm Bai Shan Lin was creating a car park for the GRA along a section of the embankment. Critics say an ad hoc deal between the country’s tax collecting agency and a foreign company which has been snared in a number of controversies here is inappropriate. Not only will GRA have to pay a fee to Bai Shan Lin but the construction is also occurring in an area that the government had previously said should only be for overhead high tension power lines. The Guyana Power and Light (GPL) has since written the Public Works Ministry complaining about the decision to allow the use of the of the area by the GRA.
Yesterday GRA Commissioner General Khurshid Sattaur issued a release defending the deal. Sattaur said that given the “nightmarish plight” the GRA faces to find parking for staff and customers at its headquarters on Camp Street, Bai Shan Lin had “seized the opportunity to demonstrate its corporate social responsibility” by building a parking area on the portion of the reserve granted to the GRA by the government. He said that the GRA will not have to bear the total cost of constructing the facility. He did not say what portion of the cost will be borne by the GRA. “The work is being carried out by equipment owned by the company. As such no government funds are being disbursed as the facility is not built on transported land but rather government reserve,” Sattaur said in the press release. Observers say that the GRA statement raises the question as to how Bai Shan Lin as opposed to any other builder came to alight upon the opportunity. The observers say it is for the very reason of ensuring that everything remains above board that arrangements such as these should be tendered out.
Sattaur further said that the gesture was also one in “recognition of the Government of Guyana’s benevolence to the company in allowing it to engage in many economic ventures that have mutual benefit to the country, particularly in the economically depressed community of Region 10.”
Observers say this is also a troubling notion that commingles the company’s separate relationships with the government and an autonomous tax collecting body.
The GRA Commissioner General then went on to say that the Bai Shan Lin initiative was similar to what obtained many years ago when Stabroek News’ late former Editor-in-Chief and owner David de Caires decided to beautify Camp Street as a place of interest and national heritage.
“This company wants to be known as a having a caring and good corporate image. It does not only want to be seen as receiving from the state benefits in terms of millions of dollars in concessions in forestry equipment, but in honouring its social and moral obligation to the community and country that it serves,” the Commissioner-General said.
Observers point out that there could be no comparison between the de Caires initiative and the one involving Bai Shan Lin. The observers note that de Caires with the help of a few others mounted a painstaking fund-raising drive among residents of Camp Street and public-spirited citizens and restored the avenue and installed benches, bollards, lights etc without the involvement of any collecting or local government agency. Furthermore there was no charging of a fee to anyone.
Sattaur in his release yesterday further stated that the organisation “welcomes similar economic or social ventures that result in rendering some form of benefit to the citizens of this country through a state agency such as ours”.
He said that the GRA does not consider such manifestations of social legitimacy by businesses a conflict of interest, as the organisation maintains a professional relationship with all the businesses it contracts to undertake works.
“From time to time we contract out services worth large sums to different businesses and these persons are still obligated to pay their taxes except they are exempt or a concession has been granted,” Sattaur said.
He added, according to the release, that the GRA will soon enter into an economic relationship that would result in “payment being made over a period of time for such facilities to be rented for a number of years at a nominal fee. This is in order to meet the high demand for parking that the business community has placed on the agency at its new location at the CLICO Building.”
Sattaur pointed out that the organisation’s Camp Street headquarters currently house eight hundred and forty one staff of which approximately two hundred and thirty five require parking. Further, at the very least, there are nine hundred and ninety six taxpayers who frequent the office on a daily basis of which it is estimated that approximately three hundred have vehicles. He said this means that over five hundred persons would require parking on a daily basis. He said these persons currently compete with schools and other businesses in the area for the available sidewalk.
Questions have been raised about the usefulness of a car park so far away from the GRA’s headquarters. Workers/users would have to park and walk several blocks along a busy area to get to the office.
Questions have also been raised about the nature of the arrangement that would allow Bai Shan Lin to collect a fee from GRA. The observers said that it would suggest that the Public Works Ministry has leased the area to Bai Shan Lin or that Bai Shan Lin is acting as an agent of the ministry.