Clint Chan Tack
PUBLIC Administration Minister Allyson West has dismissed media reports alleging corruption was involved in the leasing of a building on Park Street in Port of Spain that was designated for use by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
He also said the ministry will soon approach Cabinet to propose ways to further reduce the rent paid by the state to accommodate multiple agencies.
At a press conference at the former Port of Spain fire station, West rejected an article which she said incorrectly stated that $600,000 a month was being paid to rent the Park Street premises for the DPP office, the size of That facility was 23,000 square feet and cost $26 per square foot.
“Let me tell you the real facts,” he said.
West referred to his ministry documents, which showed the property size was 43,295 square feet, the monthly rent was $500,000 and the cost per square foot was $11.55.
He reminded the media that the Commissioner of Assessments decides the rent that the state will or will not pay to a property owner for one of its agencies to use a particular property.
Sometimes, he said, a second appraisal is requested from a private appraiser.
Regarding the Park Street property, West said the original rent offered there was $551,000 per month. That amount was reduced to $500,000 after negotiations between the ministry and the owner.
He added that claims that the owners of the building are financiers of the PNM are false.
West did not comment on whether the Judicial and Legal Services Commission (JLSC) should say why the Public Prosecution Service did not occupy the property.
“Those issues have been addressed by the Prime Minister and the Attorney General, who are the appropriate officials to deal with them. I am dealing with the rent issue.”
At a post-Cabinet press conference at St Ann’s Diplomatic Center on October 26, Dr Rowley asked the JLSC to explain why the Crown Prosecution Service did not occupy the property during its three-year lease which ended in September .
Rowley, who is also chairman of the National Security Council, said he saw reports from Special Branch that gave no reason for the lack of occupation of the building.
On October 20, DPP Roger Gaspard, SC, said he was seeking advice on Rowley’s statements.
“These are matters that require consultation and advice, in some cases legal advice, so at this stage I cannot tell you whether or not I will comment. I am taking advice on the matter.”
West said this was not the first property the state had paid rent for but was not occupied by the intended agency.
“An Alexandra Street (in St Clair) was rented just before the PNM resigned from office in 2010. That street was unoccupied for most of the 2010-2015 period (under the UNC-led People’s Partnership coalition government ).
The Ministry of Public Services has occupied the building since the PNM returned to power in September 2015.
West said reducing the cost of rent the government pays to house its many departments remains one of his ministry’s top priorities.
“We are aware that the Government pays a significant amount of money in rent.”
She estimated that figure would be approximately $23 million a month.
West said: “We have embarked on several initiatives to try to reduce this cost, because it is significant.”
Through its property and real estate services division, he continued, the ministry “has been methodically trying to reduce rents and we are currently in negotiations with several landlords to reduce rents, especially for our most expensive properties.”
He said the ministry would soon approach Cabinet with proposals to strengthen the division and give it stricter oversight of rental agreements for state agencies.
The goal is to ensure that agencies operate in spaces that are optimal for them and that taxpayers’ money is spent efficiently in this regard.
West said the ministry recently launched an online portal that allows property owners who want to offer properties to the state for rent or purchase.
The Association of Realtors also helps the Ministry find suitable accommodation for state agencies.
The government is also constructing buildings to house some of its ministries. West identified the new Ministry of Health headquarters near Queen’s Park Savannah as an example. He said a new headquarters for the Housing and Social Development ministries will also be built in Port of Spain.
While buildings are being outfitted for occupancy by state agencies, West said moratoriums are being negotiated with landlords so that rent is not incurred during these periods.
West said that for these reasons, any claims that his ministry is wasting money regarding rent payments to state agencies are unfounded.
“We know our efforts are going in the other direction.”