Managing the city

Issues surrounding the management of the City of Georgetown continue to grab the attention of the populace and make headlines in the media. And this is no surprise as Georgetown bears the distinction of being the capital and therefore the seat of government and the country’s administrative centre. If this were not reason enough, Georgetown is also Guyana’s chief seaport, and has reasonable proximity to both main airports, the Cheddi Jagan International at Timehri, EBD, and the much closer Eugene F Correia International at Ogle, ECD.

So the management of this important city, also Guyana’s largest urban and commercial centre, must be in the hands of a highly professional and focused group of technocrats guided at the policy level by the elected councillors – largely representative of the main political blocs in our country.

The Mayor & City Council (M&CC) of Georgetown, with the Town Clerk as administrator or Chief Executive Officer controls that large swath of the County of Demerara from Cummings Lodge on the East Coast to Agricola on the East Bank of the Demerara River. The 30 council seats which form the effective ‘Board of Management’ of the city, are exactly double the amount allotted to towns like New Amsterdam, Corriverton and Anna Regina, and nearly double that of Linden with 18 council seats.

Nevertheless, the City of Georgetown and the M&CC have had a very turbulent relationship over the years and mismanagement has been a word always closely linked with the council’s operations, even in past administrations. Specifically, for too long the council has faltered in its financial management and in executing its responsibilities to the populace which include, solid waste collection and disposal, maintenance of city infrastructure (such as roads and bridges), maintenance of market facilities, and child welfare services – according to the Ministry of Communities website.

This current administration of the Mayor, Councillors, the Town Clerk and his executive staff have been plagued by the ever recurring garbage crises, a flawed parking meter initiative, a never ending battle with vendors who use the council’s facilities as well as those who ply their trade in the streets, and excesses by a resurgent City Constabulary which seems only freshly aware of its authority and totally unaccustomed to wielding it.

In 2014-15 the city received a double shot in the arm in terms of its drainage and garbage issues when first, the Donald Ramotar administration launched a $1 billion countrywide ‘Clean up my country’ campaign when Georgetown received $500 million, and then the newly elected David Granger administration immediately set about a massive clean-up which targeted drains, trenches and outfalls with a view to ending the constant flooding in the rainy season for which Georgetown was well known. By the end of 2015, the benefits of the clean-up exercises were quite apparent, although in some areas the situation seems to be slipping gradually back to its previous unhealthy state.

Despite what should have been a fillip to its operational capacity, the council continued to struggle with what most consider its major function, that of garbage collection and disposal, and it has been unable to pay its contracted garbage collectors on several occasions, severely disrupting the garbage collection process each time and by extension causing health risks to the citizens. The council also has an ongoing struggle with the payment of its regular workers, underlining the severe financial deficit that it appears to have been functioning under for far too long.

In the absence of a pragmatic and professional strategic plan designed to turn around its fortunes, the council seems to be engaging in seemingly ad hoc, almost knee-jerk exercises aimed at raising much needed revenue, but to date without any noticeable success. Indeed, the only exercise that seems to bring in cold, hard cash is the rates and taxes interest rate amnesty, which the council is using increasingly to bolster its cash flows. The difficulty with this exercise, however, is that it involves the council actually taking a ‘hit’ on the interest and charges it would have normally been entitled to for late payments, although the gain of cash-in-hand makes it worthwhile on balance.

What is notable about the council’s dilemma on the rates and taxes issue is the amount owed to it: a reported whopping $4 billion that it seems unable to collect, possibly in part because of the complexity of the legal recovery process. The accumulation of taxes and interest can, in some cases, surpass the value of some properties.

Recently, the council has been proposing new initiatives, including charging a fee for the removal of garbage from businesses and residences; in addition, the city has also warned that it intends to grade lodging houses, including hotels, guesthouses and bed & breakfasts. The council has also voted in favour of the re-visited parking meter arrangement with Smart City Solutions, although other well-known objections aside, this seems premature in view of the fact the matter is still in court.

The effect of being pressed by an ever-present deficit in the short term is that long-term planning suffers greatly. It certainly does not help that City Hall seeks to use bluster and a threatening attitude to institute some of the poorly thought out and unpopular programmes it has attempted, particularly with respect to the vendors and garbage issues.

The population has been given to understand that the government is to undertake a valuation exercise in respect of properties this year, and inevitably this will be followed by an increase in the rates and taxes. This, presumably, will bring the council major relief in financial terms.

In the meantime, of course, while short-term financial exigencies will inevitably have to be confronted, citizens would still like to see some kind of vision emerging from City Hall. In other words, what kind of city do those who sit around the horseshoe table envision in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time? Financing apart, what is it they are aiming for? What kind of capital do they intend to pass to the next generation? Will it be a grubby, chaotic, disorderly, ugly city, which floods even more frequently than Georgetown does at present? Or will it reflect the good planning, management, aesthetic and historical sensibilities of a visionary leadership?

It is certainly not as if the council and its officers do not have enough urban plans, environmental assessments and transport plans on file to guide them, although traditionally impressive reports have not done anything to stimulate the imaginations of the city fathers and mothers; they have just functioned as vehicles for collecting dust. Will now be any different? We will wait and see, although present evidence does not leave much room for optimism.

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