…as Govt announces toll hikeJunior Public Infrastructure Minister Annette Ferguson on Wednesday disclosed that Demerara Harbour Bridge tolls would be increased from next year, a move the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) has condemned, calling for its withdrawal.PPP/C MP Irfaan AliJunior Public Infrastructure Minister Annette FergusonThe issue rose in the Committee of Supply during the consideration of the 2017 Estimates for the Public Infrastructure Ministry when Opposition Member of Parliament Komal Chand enquired whether the Demerara Harbour Bridge would be self-financing, since the subsidy has been reduced from $150 million last year to a mere $2 million this year. In response, Minister Ferguson revealed the intention to hike the tolls. She further disclosed the new fees, and the increases ranged from 50 to 200 per cent.The tolls will increase as follows: motorcycles – from $20 to $40; motor cars – from $100 to $200; motor cars (hire) – from $100 to $200; motor tractors – from $200 to $300; one-axle trailers – from $200 to $300; hearses – from $100 to $300; motor lorries (class 1) – from $500 to $700; motor lorries (class 3) – from $600 to $700; goods vehicles (up to 2200 pounds) – from $100 to $400, and goods vehicles (up to 4400 pounds) – from $200 to $400.However, there will be no increases for four-wheel drive jeeps and minibuses, which are currently tolled at $200 as well as for vehicles with double-axle trailers, which cost $300 to cross the bridge.The Demerara harbour BridgeAsked by PPP/C parliamentarian Juan Edghill when the announcement of the toll hikes would have been made since nothing had been said to date, the Junior Minister said that the public would have been informed later this week. The increases will take effect from January 1, 2017.The Opposition has kicked up a storm on these increases, which it called “another broadside from the Government” even as the Guyanese populace was overcoming the “shock and horror” of the 2017 Budget.“The Office of the Leader of the Opposition views the astronomical increases in the tolls to cross the Demerara Harbour Bridge as most cruel, crass and insensitive. This measure will add to the nearly 200-odd measures, which have been imposed upon the backs of the Guyanese people in the year 2016,” a statement on Wednesday evening detailed.The release went on to outline that this increase would no doubt multiply the hardships and sufferings, which the Guyanese population would have to endure in 2017 and beyond. It further stated that the manner in which the Government concealed this measure from the public was equally reprehensible, as it noted that the information was reluctantly disclosed only after intense scrutiny and questioning by the Opposition Party’s MPs.“We call upon the Government to immediately rescind these proposed increases in tolls for the Demerara Harbour Bridge and we say to the Government, that you have taxed the people of Guyana enough for the year,” the parliamentary Opposition declared.PPP/C Region Three (Essequibo Islands-West Demerara) representative Irfaan Ali also issued a statement on the “covert decision” to increase the tolls, saying that such a move would negatively affect the Region’s economy and result in additional hardships for its residents.“It is also my view that these increases will adversely affect businesses in the Region which are already struggling to survive given the Government’s mismanagement of the economy… This move by the Government is harsh, spiteful and repressive. It also presents a new wave of “jumbie economics” which is being practised by a very secretive and corrupt coalition Government,” Ali remarked.He further called on the Administration to abandon plans to increase the Demerara Harbour Bridge tolls.
GECOM sub-plot– as $100M radio set scandal swept under carpetThe People’s Progressive Party (PPP) Commissioners on the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) have declared a complete loss of confidence in Chief Elections Officer (CEO) Keith Lowenfield’s ability to carry out the duties of his office.During a press conference held at Freedom House on Friday, Commissioners Sase Gunraj, Robeson Benn and Bibi Shadick detailed a litany of complaints at the way GECOM is being run. Their appraisal of the CEO also comes against the backdrop of Lowenfield’s contract being renewed for another three years.GECOM CEO Keith LowenfieldThe Commissioners reported that there was a distinct disinterest within the GECOM hierarchy regarding the results of an audit conducted by the Auditor General into issues of procurement around the time of the May 2015 General and Regional Elections. Specifically, the Commissioners looked at GECOM’s purchase of $100 million in radio equipment.The Auditor General’s office had found discrepancies in the purchase of 50 VHF communication radios by the body. Concerns had been raised about the high price tag. As Lowenfield has been the CEO since 2014, the Commissioners expected that affirmative action on his part would be taken.However, Commissioner Gunraj reported that during a special meeting where the CEO’s contract was a substantive matter to be discussed, the subject of the forensic audits was raised. He explained that it came up as the audit was at the time featured prominently on the front page of local newspapers. He claimed that the matter was brushed aside.PPP Commissioners Sase Gunraj, Robeson Benn and Bibi Shadick“At the meeting, we were told that GECOM did not request an audit, so we ought not to pay heed to such an audit. Now, if ever there is an (example) of burying your head in the sand, then there couldn’t be a better one.”“This thing was on the front page of the newspapers for three weeks and we ought not to pay heed to it? Then tell me what we ought to pay heed to. As the Chief Elections Officer, the incumbent is the accounting officer. In the face of all those allegations, there was no desire to even await the outcome or report of that audit before we had this matter for consideration.”According to Commissioner Shadick, “one of the commissioners on the other side specifically said we did not request the audit. And since we did not ask that audit, we should not let that be a factor in our (deliberations).”When asked what had been the GECOM Chairman Dr Steve Surujbally’s position on the matter, Shadick said that he voted with them. And according to Commissioner Benn, this does not inspire confidence in the CEO.“Given the nature of the charges of the issues raised in the press, the CEO should have stepped down, stepped aside, until the audit was finished,” Benn said.Lowenfield, a former Guyana Defence Force (GDF) Officer, was appointed the Chief Elections Officer in 2014. He got the nod ahead of former acting CEO Carlton Benn and two foreign applicants. Since then, he has overseen the May 2015 General and Regional Elections of 2015, as well as the 2016 Local Government Elections.Opposition Parliamentarian Ganga Persaud had filed a petition against the elections result. Lowenfield, through his attorney, had submitted a challenge against this petition. This challenge was overruled by then Chief Justice Ian Chang.However, the three Commissioners also believe that Lowenfield, due to his particular position, should not be a combatant in the proceedings, but rather strictly a respondent.“There is no confidence in a CEO who undertakes an action which fundamentally undercuts the integrity and transparency of the Agency. This is specifically in reference to his application to the courts. It cannot stand.”Commissioner Gunraj stressed that while, as a citizen, anyone is entitled to redress in the courts, Lowenfield’s particular position as GECOM’s CEO made it necessary for him to not be a combatant in the proceedings.Accountable to ParliamentWhen contacted on Friday, CEO Lowenfield refuted assertions that he had to address the Auditor General’s audit at the Commission’s level. He stated that the law stipulates that he is accountable to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament and that it would have been addressed at that level.“The CEO, as accounting officer, was accountable in 2015 to the Ministry of Finance. An audit was done, an audit report was presented. It is a public document. And I have to go to the (PAC) with that.”“So the Audit General’s office, which completed and submitted their report to Parliament and the PAC, will be addressing that. That is not a matter for the Commission. In 2015 GECOM was a budget agency, which fell directly under the auspices of the Ministry of Finance and the Audit General’s office. They’re the ones who the law prescribed to treat with that.”