With the THA elections having become a kind of national contest, the issues of governance and integrity loom large. The two relevant controversial issues, both of which emerged late last year, were the THA/BOLT office project and the HDC’s proposed purchase of land at Calcutta No. 2 Settlement.
Both those projects have given me serious cause for concern in terms of proper public procurement practice, so much so that I see them as being two sides of the same coin. Both these cases are models of inadvisable dealings in Public Money of a type which no prudent or reputable company would undertake. I am choosing my words carefully since recent reports are that litigation has already started on both projects.
I do not at all agree with the widespread myth that corruption is a minor thing which adds maybe 10% or 15% to the cost of projects. That misinformation is nothing but public mischief which has blinded us to the scale of the theft of Public Money, so it must be completely demolished. In the case of the 1970s to 1980s ‘Government to Government Arrangements’ the then PM, George Chambers, told the nation that two out of every three ‘Petro-dollars’ was wasted or stolen. In the ongoing imbroglio over the $1.6Bn Piarco Airport project, we learned from the DPP’s S.34 statement that $1.0Bn of Public Money had been located in offshore bank accounts.
The DPP’s S.34 Statement on Wednesday September 12, 2012
“…These cases involve allegations of a conspiracy to defraud the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago of over TT$1 billion by the fraudulent use of bonds and the rigging of the contracts for the various Construction packages for the Piarco Airport Project…”
The DPP’s full statement is here.
Also, from “Cops target MP in $1Bn airport scam” in Trinidad Guardian of Friday 5 March, 2004 –
“…TV6 News reported last night that Lindquist and Interpol officers had discovered more than $1billion stashed away in off-shore accounts, arising out of corruption in the airport project…”
This article deals with the THA/BOLT project, which is a Public Private Partnership. The PPP is a procurement model now being pursued by this government, according to the strategy outlined in the 2013 budget.
Build Own Lease Transfer (BOLT) is a subset of the PPP procurement method. Under a BOLT arrangement a client has a facility built by the private sector at their expense – the client makes agreed rental payments so that the developer can cover the cost of building the project and a reasonable profit. At the end of the agreed lease period, the facility is transferred to the client.
There has been effective use of PPP to produce Public Goods like the Brian Lara Promenade. BOLT has also been used to procure prominent POS buildings such as NALIS, UTC HQ and Ministry of Works HQ (via Republic Bank) and the AG’s office at Cabildo Chambers (via NIPDEC).
The PPP can be a feasible method of procuring public goods, offices or other facilities in situations where the State is unable to commit to the capital expenditure and there is a pressing need. The strong selling-point of the PPP is that the private sector takes the risks and is allowed to make a reasonable profit while the public sector can add to its stock of capital goods without the risks of project execution.
These PPP arrangements are now being intensely criticized in developed jurisdictions as having served the public interest very poorly. The focal point of much of the criticism has been the fact that, despite the rubric, the private sector has seldom taken any genuine risk.
Turning to the actual THA/BOLT deal, I have to say that the decision to publish a large number of the important documents in relation to this arrangement is to the credit of the THA. The 225-page ‘bundle’ is here.
In response to the request from the Minister of Finance, THA leader Orville London said:
…that under the laws and the T&T Constitution the Finance Minister has no authority to instruct him to provide information to him within any timeframe.
However, London said, in the interest of public disclosure and considering that this particular transaction has generated so much discussion he believed that he had a responsibility to make the information available to the public and the Minister…
This is a bold and in my view admirable initiative by a leading Public Official and I have to say that it has tempered my scepticism over this project. I only wish that Cabinet Ministers took a similar view of their responsibilities.
The THA ‘bundle’ details the ongoing financial shortfall in allocations from Central govt, the main point of which is the fact that the THA is definitely resource-starved in relation to the arrangements with Central govt. When one considers the financial state of the THA alongside the national economic outlook – we are in our fourth year of deficit financing in relation to the national budget – it is a sobering background to this discourse.
I have spoken with all the main parties to this arrangement and this is a summary of the THA/BOLT deal. The THA purchased a 3-acre parcel of land at the corner of the Claude Noel Highway and the Shirvan Road from private landowners for $12M and immediately leased it back to them for a 199-year lease at a nominal rent. The private developers have agreed to erect an 83,000sf office building at a cost of $143M and the THA has agreed to lease it for 20 years at a fixed rent of $15.61psf – an annual rent of about $15.55M, totalling some $311M over the term of the 20-year lease – with the property reverting to the THA at the end of the lease. Those offices are to be built for the THA’s Division of Agriculture, Marine Affairs, Marketing and the Environment.
My concerns arise at the level of the Needs Assessment, which must be the first stage of any proper procurement process, public or private. The purpose of the Needs Assessment is to determine the rationale for and scope of the project so that preliminary consideration can be given to the key elements before any high costs are incurred. In this case, we are told that the developer approached the THA, which is unusual to the extent that best practice requires that extra care be taken with unsolicited proposals.
The main points concerning me are that once again we are seeing large-scale expenditure of Public Money without a proper business case having been made. The opinion of Hamel-Smith & Co as to the legality of the transaction is of no comfort to me, this is a matter of making a sound investment decision. A legal opinion is necessary but not sufficient.
That 6-page legal opinion,dated 3 January 2011,by Timothy Hamel-Smith (who was appointed Senate President on 18 June 2010) is at page 168 of the ‘bundle’.
- Quantity of space – at pages 68 and 69 of the THA ‘bundle’ there is a ‘Note for Executive Council’ which summarises that the offices occupied by that Division – a total of 22,500sf is detailed, while a further 6,000sf can be reasonably surmised for the last Department. The average rent being paid by the THA for this Division is $8.17psf, also please note that a total of 28,500sf is now occupied by the Division for which the THA is procuring an 83,000sf office building.
- Quality of space – The cost of $143M for that space equates to $1,723 per square foot and I am reliably informed that the contract calls for a fully fitted and finished office building. That figure is at the absolute upper end of the range of costs for office buildings.
- Rent levels – According to the THA’s adviser on this project, Peter Forde, at the THA Press Conference on 10 September 2012 – see
…the monthly payment of $15.61 per square foot per month was not an unreasonable rate because there were properties in Scarborough where tenants were paying as much as $10.00 per square foot. He stressed that even if there was inflation the rate will remain the same…
The first issue I have with that is the attempt to use the $10psf comparable to justify the $15.61psf rent. That is an unreasonable ‘stretch’ by my standards as a professional valuer. Did the THA seek the opinion of the Commissioner of Valuations? Secondly, the fact that the rent cannot be increased in the event of inflation is a distraction, since the likely effect of this new, huge THA office building is that the rental market in Tobago will become saturated with the offices they vacate. The result of that is the decline in office rental values, so in the absence of any provisions of provisions for rent adjustments, the burning question has to be ‘What real risk is this developer taking?’. Risk Allocation remains a real issue.
So, in summary, we have a semi-autonomous Public Authority contracting, at a time of tremendous financial strain, to build first-class facilities three times larger than the second-class ones it currently occupies. Finally, please note that according to the ‘Note’ I cited earlier, the current monthly rent bill of the THA Division is $231,788, while the new monthly rent under this arrangement will be $1.295M – over five times more.
At the start of this article, I gave examples of the ratio at which Public Money was wasted or stolen, so just compare this project to those figures.
My next article will delve into the Calcutta Settlement land deal and its own peculiarities.