Recent comments by St. Annes MP and co-owner of Town Centre Mall Brent Symonette during an interview with talk show host Shenique Miller raise the following questions about the general post office lease agreement which ought to have been tabled in parliament last October and has yet to be made public some nine months later:
How Much Are We Paying In Rent Each Year?
In parliament last October, minister responsible Renward Wells told the nation the government would be renting a total of 69,875 sq. ft. at Town Centre Mall at $12 per sq. ft. Mr. Symonette now says the leased space is 56,000 sq. ft. in total. Mr. Wells said the government might need an additional 5,000 sq. ft, which if necessary, would have taken the total leased space to 74,875 sq. ft. At the government’s primary figure, the yearly rent would be $838,500. Mr. Symonette’s figure would put the yearly rent at $672,000. Which is it?
Mr. Symonette said his partners worked with the Ministry of Works on the plans for the current post office arrangement. If that is so, how did minister Wells arrive at a total leased space that is almost 14,000 sq. ft. more than what the co-owner says was agreed to? What changed, if anything? The new 2019/2020 Budget meantime, does not list what the new rent allocation for the general post office will be, even though the government took occupancy of the mall space during the last budget period.
Why Are We Taking On Debt As Part Of This Agreement?
Mr. Symonette said the landlord has put in around a half-million dollars in “extras” including furniture which the government “did not buy” and the government will be required to pay back at prime rate (4.25%) over a five-year term. His comment on the face of it suggests the government has entered into a credit sale agreement with the owners for these items – which is a form of borrowing. This would amount to at least $106,250 in interest payments for the term.
But minister Wells told the media in April of this year that the government had already purchased furniture at around $30,000 “out of pocket”, and that another approximately $130,000 was spent for electrical work. He previously told parliament that the scope of work for this project would be at “no cost” to the government. What are the “extras” including furniture that are going to be seemingly financed by the owners at a cost of around $500,000 plus interest?
Who in Cabinet negotiated this credit agreement? Why would the government agree to being charged interest in this circumstance and where are the supporting documents to justify why we are paying ultimately in excess of $600,000 for these items once interest is factored in?
The Bottom Line
What is important for Bahamians to know and understand is there is no such thing as “government money”. What we call “the government’s money” is our money. When we elect a government, we hire it to manage our money during its term in office. All Bahamians, regardless of politics, have a right to know every thing the government does with their money. There is nothing about the use of our money a government should hide from us. And any administration that does so is not to be trusted, no matter who is at the helm or which color he or she wears.
Had the process of choosing a new post office space gone through established public procurement protocols we perhaps would not be where we are today. It is still highly debatable whether the government needed to seek out a new location at all since it already had a building secured and given that it referenced concerns by area residents that did not appear to be concerns the government could not have satisfactorily addressed.
Had this lease agreement been made public, many of the questions the public and parliamentarians have could have already been answered. Transparency is expeditiously providing to the people the information they have a right to know – not telling them whatever you feel they should know and then reminding them of how grateful they should be that the blindfold you have put on them is far more fashionable than the one provided by your predecessor.
Issuing government contracts to a sitting Cabinet minister is controversial, though it is legal under certain conditions. And fair or not, issuing a government contract to Brent Symonette would be even more controversial still, simply because of who he is – something every minister around that table knows full well.
Though governments usually get by because many citizens are asleep at the wheel of nationhood and democracy, they don’t put a political knife to their own throat by being reckless about a decision that can trigger widespread attention and public anger lingering straight to the polls unless they are out of control and high off the plume of power.
The Prime Minister as head of the Cabinet and head of this nation did not have to take this course of action or handle this matter in a way that has caused mounting damage to his administration and to public trust. But he did. The question on many people’s mind now is why.