Minister in the Ministry of Local Government Norman Whittaker has warned that moves to resume collection of the Kara Kara bridge toll could result in extortion charges, even as about 30 toll collectors working with the Linden Town Council have been sacked.
The warning comes ahead of the planned reinstatement of the toll next Monday by the Linden Interim Management Committee (IMC), in defiance of a revocation of the toll by the minister in September.
“The Kara Kara toll was removed following a ministerial order signed by yours truly,” Whittaker told Stabroek News, while noting that the reinstatement would be illegal and that the perpetrators could be charged for extortion.
The Local Government Ministry last month said that a legal opinion had found that the order for the toll was null and void because it had not been gazetted. The revocation came after the toll order was challenged by a “stakeholder,” who protested to central government and urged a review.
Whittaker stressed that to take money from drivers using the bridge was illegal and if the IMC wanted to implement such a measure it should have been done through legal channels.
“The order to collect the road toll should have been done through the legal channel. This was not done and it should not have been. What they did was so illegal.”
By a majority vote, the IMC decided last week to reopen the Kara Kara toll booth. The IMC is hoping that the funds from the toll collection would provide crucial funds needed to avert a crisis in delivery of municipal services and a strike by workers. Up to this week, members reported that the IMC only had $400,000 in its coffers but needed $3.4M to meet wages for the month of October. Town Council workers had not yet been paid for the month.
Meanwhile, Whittaker also said that after seeking legal advice from Attorney General Anil Nandlall, the decision was made to have the services of persons responsible for collecting tolls recently terminated. He said that a severance package deal was worked out for the 30 persons affected.
“They will have benefits. I won’t use the word fired because they have benefits… All the staff and I don’t know directly how much but something like 30 people will go… I don’t know how 30 something people could have been in charge of bridge tolls anyway unless it must have been a lucrative business but they have all been severed,” he said.
Asked about the workers possibly refusing to accept the packages offered, the Minister would only say “Well, I never hear of people not wanting to accept being fired.”
Orrin Gordon, Chairman of the Linden IMC, when contacted about Whittaker’s position, expressed surprise at the threat and likelihood of representatives of the municipality being arrested for manning the Kara Kara toll booth.
The contention between the Ministry of Local Government and the Linden IMC arose after the latter decided to be more vigilant in collecting tolls from vehicles that pass through Linden to operate in the hinterland in a variety of industries, including lumber and mining.
The move to be more vigilant in revenue collection was influenced by the need for the municipality to implement a new minimum wage of $35,000 from 1 July. It is estimated that the Kara Kara toll booth generates between $2.5M to $3M in revenue a month.
Gordon has repeatedly pointed out that before the implementation of the new minimum wage, workers at the Linden Town Council received on the average $24,000 per month. He said that to raise the salary of over a hundred workers by $11,000 a month is a phenomenal task, given the municipality’s limited resources.
Members of the Linden IMC noted that the Kara Kara toll booth had been in operation for 16 years —since 1997—before it was closed down this year.
Region 10 Chairman Sharma Solomon had said that he did not want to be intrusive in the affairs of the municipality but he would include any request by the IMC for support in his chairman’s report at this week’s Regional Democratic Council (RDC) statutory meeting.
He said that apart from calling on the RDC to support the position of the Linden IMC, the RDC would take the necessary steps to ensure that there would be a level of community activism to ensure mass support at the toll booth.
Whittaker said Solomon’s position made no sense but opined that maybe Solomon “needed his own staff.”
(Marcelle Thomas and Jeff Trotman)