Independent senator calls for more accountability from regional corporations

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Charrise Seepersad –

INDEPENDENT Senator Charisse Seepersad on Tuesday urged more accountability by regional corporations, as she disclosed delays in them reporting their financial statements to Parliament. She spoke as the Senate continued its debate on the Miscellaneous Provisions (Local Government Reform) Bill 2020 which gives these corporations more powers and funding.

These bodies’ financial accountability was “not satisfactory”, she said.

“Ninety three per cent of the corporations have not submitted audited financial statements to Parliament for more than five years.”

She listed the outstanding reports not filed in Parliament by each corporation.

“Point Fortin (Borough) Corporation, 2000-2021, 22 years outstanding. Arima Borough Corporation, 2008-2021, 14 years outstanding. Couva Tabaquite Talparo and Diego Martin Regional Corporations and San Fernando City Corporation, 2009-2021, 13 years outstanding.”

Seepersad said Port of Spain City Corporation, plus Mayaro/Rio Claro and Tunapuna/Piarco Regional Corporations each had 12 years of reports outstanding from 2010-2021.

“Chaguanas Borough Corporation, Sangre Grande and Siparia Regional Corporation, 2014-2021, eight years outstanding.

“Penal/Debe Regional Corporation, 2015-2021, seven years outstanding. San Juan/Laventille Regional Corporation, 2016-2021, six years outstanding. Princes Town Regional Corporation 2019-2021, three years outstanding.” She said this showed a “woeful state of governance” and poor accountability by corporations managing public funds.

Seepersad said the bill would give corporations funds collected from property tax, with little real financial oversight.

“And evidently there are no consequences.”

Seepersad said for the new bill to work, corporations needed adequate funds and staff, plus proper policies and procedures enforced by the Ministries of Finance and Rural Development and Local Government.

“Local Government corporations must not only operate lawfully and ethically but they need to work hard to avoid and ensure that even the appearance of impropriety is not apparent.

“Accountability should be of concern for all local government employees, not just those elected and requires strict standards and procedures to promote ethical behaviour.”

Saying the bill imposes strict penalties for misbehaviour in public office, she said core values of integrity, equality and transparency must be the foundation for every decision and policy.

“I agree that many changes proposed to the bill, while late in coming, are necessary and can improve and enhance the services to communities.

“However, I still have misgivings that without strict adherence to professionalism, responsibility, accountability and transparency, good governance will be sacrificed, together with the essential services the communities and TT require and need to be resilient, to develop and grow.”

Independent Dr Maria Dillon-Remy recalled challenges during the pandemic with regional health authorities (RHAs) getting data to the Ministry of Health promptly. She wondered how the 14 municipal medical officers proposed in the new bill would relate to the ministry’s Chief Medical Officer.

She said she hoped the transformed regional corporations would not be big structures like RHAs, but be “lean and effective.”

Independent Senator Amrita Deonarine said a recent Auditor General’s Report on the Public Accounts of TT had complained of regional corporations not keeping cash books despite their costly development projects. Lamenting that the Auditor General cannot compel corporation to compliance, she said, “There is no penalty. There is no fine.”

Deonarine said in corporations and state enterprises, there was a normalcy to not having up-to-date audited financial statements, even as the new bill gives corporations more autonomy.

“We cannot be giving more autonomy to these regional corporations – especially giving them a critical revenue function, that is the collection of property taxes – and the necessary accountability mechanisms and penalties for violating such, is not in place.

“There needs to be some sort of provision in the law where they are held accountable to a higher account, where audited financial statements and all other financial statements are concerned.”