Garbage crisis

It strains credulity to think that two by no means large local private sector companies have been able to remain in business in circumstances where, together, they are owed amounts totalling well in excess of $300 million for essential services which they have been rendering to the capital for years. That, indeed, is the situation in which garbage disposal entities Cevon’s Waste Management and Puran Brothers find themselves at this time. The debtor is City Hall; much of the debt goes back more than two years and the likelihood of liquidation of the debt any time soon appears remote.

On Friday, not for the first time since the beginning of the prolonged dialogue between the two sides on the matter of just how the debts will be settled and a time-frame for doing so, the two service providers withdrew their services. City Hall, as is its practice whenever Cevon’s and Puran Brothers pull the plug on garbage disposal, have resorted to makeshift arrangements which previously have been woefully inadequate. The assumption in the prevailing circumstance is that the situation will give rise to an understanding of sorts which will result in some portion of the debt (more likely than not a modest portion) being settled, after which the two companies will return to work. Thereafter, the pointless ebb and flow of a situation that now seems to have no end, will begin all over again. There is no reason to believe that there has been any change to that assumption.

The net effect of all this is that the capital remains vulnerable to periodic withdrawal of critical garbage disposal services, unreliable and inadequate temporary service-provision measures and a negotiating environment between City Hall and its creditors that has a tendency to slip into brinkmanship and gridlock. At those junctions it is the Government of Guyana as much as the municipality that must worry.

The risks and likely consequences of a garbage disposal crisis in the capital are far more a potential headache for central government than they are for the municipality.

Last week’s withdrawal of garbage collection services to the capital was by no means the first clear signal that the management crisis that has long afflicted City Hall has outlived the staging of last year’s local government elections. That, one might argue, is hardly surprising since the elections themselves have been attended by few significant corresponding changes in the personages in charge at City Hall.

That is why what happens next in the matter of restoring long-term normalcy to Georgetown’s garbage disposal service manifestly cannot be left up to City Hall. The evidence up until now is that in the absence of a capacity to settle its debts to the two service providers – either fully or to a significant extent – the municipality has opted for a quixotic negotiating strategy (if indeed it can be called that) comprising a mix of dissembling and downright unreasonableness. Indeed, there have been times when its ‘proposals’ for the settlement of its debts to the garbage disposal firms have sought refuge in the realm of patent absurdity.

There has emerged, over time, incontrovertible evidence that the two garbage disposal contractors have had to endure an unending cycle of frustration in their engagements with City Hall in their debt collection pursuits. In the process the municipality has, variously, failed to meet promised payment dates, unilaterally shifted agreed payment dates, made payments totalling lesser amounts than had originally been agreed and issued cheques to the companies that have not been honoured by the banks. Very recently and out an abundance of what is perhaps best described as an excursion into absurdity, City Hall proposed to the two companies that they “park,” (that is to say, set aside) for an unspecified period, the amounts owed to them for years 2015 and 2016 and engage only on this year’s liabilities. Predictably, the two companies have rejected the ‘proposal’ out of hand.

It is the lack of evidence that City Hall is capable of providing anything remotely resembling a reasonable solution to the problem of its huge and continually mounting urban garbage disposal debt that compels a decisive central government response. In fairness to the two contractors it will be recalled they both played an important part in the post-general elections cleanup of Georgetown and its environs as well as in the pre-50th Anniversary sprucing up of the city, exercises for which both City Hall and central government attracted generous measures of public praise. That is one reason why it is regrettable  that the two companies now find themselves locked in what, over time, have been virtually pointless negotiations with City Hall over the settlement of outstanding debts that could have implications for their longer-term viability.

Nor should it be forgotten that the signing of major garbage disposal contracts between City Hall and the two companies in 2015 (arising out of which they were each assigned garbage disposal responsibilities in five of the city’s ten wards) had their origins in the mismanagement of the municipality’s own garbage disposal inventory and the eventual complete collapse of that service.

If it is a matter of considerable regret that the present untenable situation arises out of yet another example of the limitations of City Hall, that does not mean that the matter of liquidating the debt to the two contractors should simply be left to a manner and a time-frame determined by the municipality. Some measure of government intervention is needed that focuses on a rational and reasonable negotiated settlement of the outstanding debts (the alternative may well be to have the extant situation drift deeper into a possible urban sanitation crisis) and to have that initiative attended by some kind of longer term understanding about payment. Frankly, if it remains true that ways must be found of ensuring the incumbent municipal administration discharges its duties competently and responsibly, since City Hall cannot be relied upon to play any meaningful role, then it is central government which must take the lead.

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