Over a year after the discovery that a tax collector embezzled over $20 million from the Golden Grove/ Diamond Neighbourhood Democratic Council (NDC), its Chairman Bharrat Narine has called for the computerisation of the tax collection system used by local authorities in order to prevent fraud.
“The NDCs throughout the country need better systems in place and this tax collecting needs to be done from a database. There’re many recommendations I can give as an auditor but you cannot just go into a book and see how much a person has to pay and use ink and writing. You need one of those pay systems like in supermarkets and bank systems where you have a unique number attached to receipts,” Narine told Stabroek News, while noting that the current systems must be upgraded in order to promote transparency and accountability.
“We’re the biggest NDC in the country and bigger than any municipality, except for Georgetown, in terms of population. There needs to be government intervention in the way these NDCs are operating. For too long people are paying their taxes and then hearing we lose money,” he added.
Narine explained that the NDC was defrauded in the 2015 to 2016 period. At the end of the latter, he said, their records showed that they collected only $37.5 million. In comparison, they collected $74.5 million at the end of last year. For the first quarter of this year, he added, they have since collected over $30 million, which is without adding the revenue from the largest taxpayer, DDL, which is expected to bring in a further $17 million.
Narine explained that since he became a member of the NDC in 2016, he was part of the Finance Committee and had suspected that something was going wrong since the income did not match their budget. In January, 2017, he was elected to take up the helm of the NDC and one of his first decisions was to start an investigation into the alleged fraud that was taking place.
“We created new committees and internally I chose six people for the Revenue Collections Sub-Committee. While everyone was looking at expenditure, nobody was looking at incoming funds. I knew something was wrong because we had a budget for $94 million and for 2016 we only collected $35.7 million plus the $4 million subvention,” he said.
Narine noted that he subtracted the figures of the big contributors, who would collectively contribute over $30 million dollars in rates and taxes. “I am here seeing people come and pay taxes every day, so how can it be only $7 million we collected. I knew something was wrong and I have an auditor’s background,” he added.
Narine explained that he, along with other councillors, subsequently went into the two communities and checked the receipts of residents and when they brought them back to the council and compared it to their documents they discovered that persons were receiving fake receipts.
He said on February 9th, 2017, the District Development Officer (DDO) for the Region was present at the NDC and what they discovered was revealed to him. The tax collector was called and it was related to her what they had found and according to Narine, the next day she tendered her resignation and disappeared.
Narine subsequently made a report to the Region in the presence of the DDO for advice since they were unsure of how to handle the situation.
He said the Regional Executive Officer and the Assistant Regional Executive Officer were very helpful and told him to report the fraud to the police station and request a travel ban for the tax collector. The Ministry of Communities was then notified and in collaboration with the Region and the NDC, a task force was set up to audit the books.
After about two weeks and auditing some 60% of their documents, Narine explained that it was discovered that $21 million was missing. They then subsequently submitted all the documentation and files to the police fraud squad.
The police made two attempts to visit the tax collector’s home, which did not bear any fruit, and Narine explained that nothing else has been done since and they have not received any feedback.
“The Region had it on their agenda at the monthly meeting and, of course, we did our part and they did their part. But nothing came out of the police and eventually the Ministry of Communities handed over the matter to the Auditor General’s Office,” Narine noted.
He said the Auditor General’s representative visited several times and requested some documents but there has been no additional progress, despite more than a year passing.
“The police and the Auditor General’s Office need to do their work. We need closure in this matter. The life of this council comes to an end at the end of the year and we’ve done a lot of work and we don’t want it to go to waste. We want closure to this matter,” Narine said.
“A person can be charged in absentia. They haven’t called in anyone to speak with them or the DDO. Not a single person was called up for questioning and that was over a year ago. This is taxpayers’ money and we could’ve done a whole lot,” he said.
Narine noted that the NDC has learned from its mistakes and has put many measures in place to ensure that there is no recurrence. The NDC has since installed cameras in its offices to ensure that persons cannot use duplicated books and has sought to have its receipt books certified by the Region.