On September 12 the Express published an article of mine asking questions about a land/building arrangement in Shirvan, Tobago, between the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) and private companies, two of them Milshirv and Amera.
On September 13, the Express published an ad from the THA designed to show how sound the arrangement was. On September 14 I received a letter from an attorney acting on behalf of Milshirv and Amera.
In part, the letter, which purports to comment on my article, confidently assures me, as if it is not for me to make such a decision, that the THA ad "very adequately responds to (my) concerns..." It says further that the "THA incurs no cost or risk insofar as the construction stage of the building is concerned (and that once) the period of twenty-something years has elapsed, the ownership is transferred to the THA. In essence, the 199-year lease is nominal, and is in place solely for the purposes of securing financing."
It ends with the following: "(S)hould any aspect of the transaction remain unclear, in so far as it involves my clients, they will be pleased to meet with you to discuss the matter. Finally, I do not wish to issue the usual legal cautions, including a caution with respect to repetition of the words. I therefore trust that you will act, as my clients have done, in an agreeable manner, so that we can arrive at an amicable resolution to this most unfortunate matter."
I have sent the letter to my attorney, who is out of the country, for his advice and I await this. I wonder, however, if an attempt is being made to intimidate me into silence. If so, all I can say is that I have never allowed myself to be intimidated by anyone, and I am too old now to change my ways.
I am quite unable to accept the assertion that the THA ad of September 13 "very adequately" deals with my concerns. On the contrary, the ad raises even more concerns in my mind. Let's look at some of them.
First, the ad says that the THA "was first approached by the project sponsors, who had identified the Assembly's need for its own office accommodation, given the annual office rental expenses of the various divisions of the Assembly amounting to over $25 million..."
Isn't it odd that it was "the project sponsors" (how is that term defined?), and not the THA itself, that identified this THA need? Didn't the THA do its own needs assessment? If not, why? And if the THA's annual office rentals amount to over $25 million., why are arrangements now being made to house only one THA Division (Agriculture, Marine Affairs, etc) in the proposed Shirvan building?
To make matters more obscure, one of the documents I received recently tells you, when you add up the figures in it, that the THA has been spending a monthly sum of about $233,000, or about $2.8 million annually, on rents for the various departments of the Agriculture Division. (The document doesn't make clear the total square footage involved, but it seems to be in the vicinity of 25,000.)
But the THA ad claims that the division will save $8.1 million. annually by occupying the proposed new building. Could the THA please clear this up for the taxpayers' benefit?
I agree with the move to place the division's departments in one location, but how is it that the division now needs 83,000 sq ft (the size of the building the THA has agreed to)? Even if you add to the assumed current 25,000 another 10,000 for expansion of staff and facilities, you're still a long, long way from 83,000. By way of comparison, I am advised that the Victor Bruce Financial Complex in downtown Scarborough is about 75,000 sq ft in area and that each floor of the Nicholas Tower in Port of Spain is 8,000 sq ft.
Are we now to have a division larger than a complex and 10 floors of Nicholas? Amazing.
And what is the rental cost per sq foot? The THA says $15.61; the letter from the attorney says $14.46. Which is correct? Further, if it is true that rents in downtown Scarborough range between $7 and $10 per sq foot, how can a building in far-off Shirvan command $14.46, let alone $15.61?
Second, the THA ad, which heaps much praise on the BOLT arrangement, says that the Assembly hasn't been able "to fund its own office building construction because of the shortfalls in its parliamentary allocation for Development Programme (DP) purposes..." I have looked at the THA DP budgetary proposals for fiscal years 2010 to 2012 and have not been able to locate any request for monies for a new Agriculture Division building. (One was designed several years ago, however. Whatever happened to those plans?)
Mention of a new building does however appear in the 2013 DP. The national budget for 2013 has not yet been presented, but I expect that, in the circumstances, Larry Howai will ignore the THA request.
Lastly, the ad says that the THA "was required" (by whom, I wonder?) "to put aside 18 months of lease payments...so as to guarantee that the actual lease payments would be made when due". This requirement, the ad continues, "is quite normal financial market practice..."
I leave to you the accuracy and implications of those statements, noting only that one of the documents I have enjoins the THA to pay Milshirv, up front, $21.56m. "as a security deposit for any breach of the (THA's) obligation for the payment of rent...which sum shall be held in an interest bearing account in the name of (Milshirv) and the (THA) with First Citizens Bank Ltd."
Is this really how BOLT works?
I have much more to ask, like what exactly is to happen during and at the end of the 20-year building lease period, and what exactly a "nominal" lease is.
Reginald Dumas is a
former ambassador and former head of the Public Service.