Gonzales: Pandemic makes serving people a challenge

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday


Public Utilities Minister and MP for Lopinot/Bon Air West Marvin Gonzales tills the garden of farmer Davanand Jadoo, left, alongside officials during an event to commission street lights in Bon Air West on July 22, 2021. – Photo by Sureash Cholai

Minister of Public Utilities and MP for Lopinot/Bon Air West Marvin Gonzales has said the pandemic has made his duties challenging.

In an interview with Newsday, Gonzales reflected on his tenure as MP over the past year after being elected to government on August 10, 2020.

“You can’t effectively represent constituents when you have to operate under tight restrictions,” said Gonzales, adding the inability to have community meetings and other activities prevented him from engaging with his constituents in the way he would have wanted.

“A community is not only about putting down infrastructure, but also about pursing programmes where community can express themselves. My constituency is very rich in culture and talented people,” he said, citing the Lopinot historical site, the Super Nova pan group from Surrey Village, and TT cricketer Lendl Simmons who is (from Tacarigua) and has a cricket ground is named after him.

“The community is just waiting for life to go back to some kind of normalcy.” He said one of the key things his constituents are faced with now is unemployment. “A lot of people who come to my constituency office, that is their main challenge.”

He said while the government aims to jump start the economy by pushing initiatives such as its ongoing vaccination drive, unemployment will continue to be an issue for many residents.

“Going into 2022, my focus will be to work with my constituents to give them access to a number of initiatives, especially in the agriculture sector where we plan to pursue a number of projects.”

He said another project on his agenda for 2022 is to work with the Ministry of Youth Development and National Service to convert the Five Rivers Junior Secondary School into a major youth training facility.

He said in 2021, his office was able to provide several areas with access to water and electricity. “Very soon we will be working on the Lopinot road which is in deplorable state.”

He said he has already discussed with Minister of Tourism Randall Mitchell about restoring the Lopinot Historical Site, which has been out of operation for nearly 10 years. He said the site, before the pandemic, has attracted over 100,000 visitors.

“I have already written to and had discussions with Mitchell to bring to cabinet a vote to bring the site back.”

He said there are also a number of community centres currently under construction. “I think in 2022 those sites will be opened and commissioned. These are the things that have been on the cards for quite some time (which) I look forward to bringing to completion during my tenure.”

In November 2020, one of Gonzales’ first acts as MP was a sod-turning on the site of the old Surrey Village community centre where a new state-of-the-art centre will be built. During the ceremony, Minister of Sport and Community Development Shamfa Cudjoe said the new centre will cost $11 million.

She also said at the time that 13 community centres were in the works for that fiscal year. Gonzales said he has found creative ways to keep in touch with his constituents through social media, but he prefers to be on the ground. “We have to make ourselves visible,” he said.

Spotlight on community-based programmes

Gonzales said his ministry will also be working in the new year to highlight many of the community-based programmes which it has been doing quietly for the past year.

On December 21, the ministry collaborated with Ministry of Housing and Development and the Land Settlement Agency (LSA) to distribute 24 keys to starter homes to residents in six areas, including Gonzales’ Bon Air constituency.

Gonzales partnered with the Ministry of Housing’s Housing and Village Improvement Programme (HVIP) to bring each recipient a $25,000 grant through the Ministry of Public Utilities’ Residential Electrification Assistance Programme (REAP).

The grant allows recipients to wire or rewire their homes in the event the owners do not have the financial resources to do so themselves.

“Under the HVIP programme, the recipient gets about $135,000 to construct a starter home. The contractor does not benefit a lot. Time management is key. The job needs to be done as quickly as possible because the longer it takes, it reduces the profit made.

“With that $135,000, you have to bear the cost to have the house rewired. I realised if I linked REAP, recipients can access (the grant) to undertake expense of rewiring their home so they can do more work to bring it closer to completion.”

The programme is available to residents with a monthly income of below $7,000. Gonzales said in fiscal 2021, the programme completed 93 household wiring/rewiring projects.

In 2022, he said he would like to add the ministry’s Water Tank Assistance Programme for people who do not live on the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) distribution grid. “The programme will assist in purchasing a water tank so (people) can store their water.

Minister of Public Utilities and MP for Lopinot/Bon Air West Marvin Gonzales at his ministry’s office in Port of Spain. Photo by Angelo Marcelle

He said in January, he would like to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the LSA and Housing Ministry to ensure the initiatives progress.

Gonzales said these initiatives embody the social aspect of the ministry that he is planning to focus on in 2022. Other programmes offered by the ministry include the electrification programme geared toward assisting communities outside of the TT Electricity Commission’s (TTEC) grid, and the solar assistance programme through which the ministry will install solar systems in homes in rural communities so they can access electricity.

“One of the things I need to do from a communication perspective is to put out information for the public to access these programmes,” he said the wider public were unaware of them although some of them have been around since 2015. “Even as we move to commission these projects and rebuild WASA, the people want water. All this talk about digitisation…they just want water. We understand while we pursue these initiatives, we have to come up with (other) initiatives to improve water supply.”

He said the Community Water Improvement Programme (CWIP) was another initiative relaunched in 2021. Through the programme the Pitch Road booster station in Morvant was refurbished, improving the water supply for 17,000 residents, some of whom, he said, had not had running water for 20 years.Gonzales said while the transformation of the sector will take some doing, these short-term projects have still been beneficial to residents across TT.

Read about the minister’s plans for WASA, utilities in Monday’s Newsday.