Has Tobago been allowed to spend billions of taxpayers dollars with little or no oversight and even less accountability to the people of T&T whose money it is entrusted every year?
The Tobago House of Assembly by Act 37 of 1980 has been ascribed significantly more power than any other local government body in the country.
In its revised legislation, a formula was set for its funding that ensures the Minister of Finance provides a minimum percentage of the national budget to the island. Part of the rationale for the governance arrangements for Tobago are that the island is under-developed re: Trinidad and its separation by water provides a significant challenge that does not exist in other areas of the country. Tell this, of course, to the people of Rio Claro or La Brea.
Since the 1995 election when the two Tobago seats held the reigns of power and the late ANR Robinson formed an alliance with Basdeo Panday to remove the late Patrick Manning from power, Tobago has held a premium on electoral politics in T&T. It is perhaps this reality that has allowed the island to basically ignore the Auditor General with little accountability for the billions of dollars it spends and the Central Government seemingly turning a blind eye to its shortcomings.
The two Tobago seats have over the last two decades proven themselves crucial to any general election victory the PNM is to have, and it has done so while continuing to show the PNM that they are not safe seats. So it changed hands in 2010 when there was the wave that swept aside the PNM and unlike seats like Laventille West, the Diego Martins and La Brea the PNM knows that if Tobago does not get what it wants, there could be serious electoral risk.
For the UNC the reality is the party has no influence in Tobago and any attempt to challenge the THA would be seen as an affront to its non-traditional supporters. That is the political Rubicon that makes the THA almost untouchable.
In the last 10 years the THA has received from the Central Government more than $27 billion in funding and this does not included billions more spent by ministries and statutory bodies on the island.
Even with that funding the island’s tourism sector has declined, the THA continues to crowd out private enterprise as it employs more than half the working population and while the country is made to believe that tourism is what drives Tobago’s economy, it is in fact budgetary support from the central government and some domestic tourism that keeps Tobago afloat.
During the last decade there have been many instances in which projects have been started and abandoned and tens of millions of dollars wasted.
In last Sunday’s Business Guardian my colleague Loyse Vincent chronicled millions spent on failed projects by the Tourism Division of the Tobago House of Assembly while the present political leader of the Tobago Council of the PNM Tracy Davidson-Celestine was the Secretary of Tourism.
According to the article under the Tourism Accommodation Upgrade Programme (TAUP) there were reimbursable grants for approved upgrade work done to accommodation facilities in Tobago.
Many of those properties had work that remained incomplete, over budget and in some cases the hotels even went into bankruptcy.
In 2015 the THA spent a total of $32 million to purchase two properties, Sanctuary Villa at Black Rock and Manta Lodge, a Dive Villa at Speyside. Since then the properties have not welcomed a single visitor except bats and rodents as they have been sitting idly for more than five years.
The 11-year-old Tobago Jazz Experience was designed to attract visitors to the island. In 2019 alone the festival incurred a budget of $12 million and while former Chief Secretary Kelvin Charles commissioned economist Dr Ralph Henry, chairman of Kairi Consultants, to conduct a comprehensive economic impact assessment of the festival for the past 10 years, the results of those findings were never made public.
Another thorn in the side of the Tobago Jazz Experience is the failure of THA officials to provide information on a reported court matter against international recording artist D’Angelo (Michael Eugene Archer) who was allegedly paid US$430,000 to perform at the 2017 Tobago Jazz Experience but failed to make an appearance.
In September 2016 then Secretary of Tourism and Transportation Davidson-Celestine launched two of a proposed six heritage trails. Significant sums were spent to upgrade several sites some of which are still incomplete.
The Scarborough Trail was air-marked to start from the Esplanade and end at Fort King George. The church trail was designed to begin at the Mt Pleasant Anglican Church and cemetery and end at Moriah Moravian Church. These remain incomplete and not an option for locals and visitors.
Also in 2015 a zip-line project for the Main Ridge Forest Reserve was announced. After spending $500,000 to get the project off the ground, the project was put on hold.
Approximately $4 million was approved to undertake this project, which was expected to be completed within seven weeks of the materials arriving on site. A service agreement was signed in June 2015 between the THA and Original Canopy Tours Enterprise Ltd to design, develop and construct a high angle canopy tour course in the Main Ridge Forest Reserve.
The division paid $416,000 to Original Canopy Tours Enterprises Ltd for materials, equipment and a 40-foot insulated shipping container, and $192,571 payment for procurement project management done by EIDCOT (Eco Industrial Development Company of Tobago) and visits to Tobago by Original Canopy Tours Enterprises Ltd.
Also under Davidson-Celestine’s leadership as Tourism Secretary, in 2012 there were plans to construct a conservation building to house artefacts that were going to “be plucked from the seabed of the Scarborough port.” This project was to be lead by Dr Kroum Batcharov of the Maritime Archaeology University of Connecticut, who was hired to work alongside the Rockley Bay Research Project to investigate and harvest 17th century artefacts from shipwrecks on the Scarborough harbour again this is a project that has not been completed and money spent by the THA to no avail.
There is, of course, the ongoing police investigation into missing cheques at the Tourism Division that has been ongoing for years and no one charged. And according to Attorney Martin George this is just the tip of the iceberg.
All of these projects and failures have been in the public domain in Tobago for years but have not raised national concern.
The Auditor General has consistently raised concern about the lack of information and the lack of reporting on the finances of the THA.
The third report of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report found difficulty in justifying the non-submission or incomplete submission of seven years of financial statements (2008-2014) by an institution that is constitutionally protected, and guaranteed financial provision by the Constitution of T&T.
It read: “The Auditor General’s Department must be given the power to enforce compliance and to impose sanctions on institutions under its charge which behave in such an unacceptable manner. The problematic issues in the THA are too many and seem to be too easily dismissed without any demand for accountability. The management of financial affairs at the THA appears sloppy and laissez-faire.”
It continued: “The number of bad loans taken by Assemblymen and Contracted Officers to the THA, the less than adequate state of the management of day to day finances, the outstanding invoices from suppliers and perpetual late payments to suppliers, the identified discrepancies between the vote book and subsidiary accounts, the discrepancies between cash book and actual balance sheet, unsigned reconciliation statements, invisible unpaid cheques, the absence of checks and balances, weak internal controls and non-existent internal audit systems, all of these things reflect very badly on the THA and make the case for a complete review of the THA as an institution.”
These are damning words from the Parliamentary committee and the question is what prevents the central government from engaging the THA to ensure that the checks and balances in place to protect the public purse are taken seriously. Perhaps the requirement is to change the legislation and give the Auditor General’s Department more teeth. Perhaps there is a need for greater scrutiny by the public accounts committees but what is clear there are too many claims of wastage of public funds with the THA seeming to be accountable to itself only.
Only last month the THA announced that it was amalgamating three state enterprises under its purview into one company, No discussion as to the state of finances of the companies, any need for re-capitalisation, losses and liabilities, cash balances, employees, business plan. Nothing is said.
There is a saying in Tobago that goes like this, “where horse ah tie, ah dey he hafi graze.” Let’s hope this is not the case and it’s only about weak institutional arrangements which can be strengthened.
It can no longer be a case of nah trouble trouble, trouble nah trouble you.