No need for new foreign ministry building

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

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A new building to house the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, we are told, is to be constructed in downtown Kingston.


According to Ms Margaret Jobson, the acting permanent secretary in the ministry, construction of what is being termed a "custom-made building" could begin at the end of this month.


The relocation of the ministry from Dominica Drive in New Kingston would cost taxpayers an initial $450 million, the ministry told the country in February this year.


The move, the ministry further said, formed part of the Government's cost-saving measure to relocate ministries and agencies to cheaper offices in downtown Kingston. The ministry also said that the final cost of the new building was still to be determined, but gave an initial estimate of $447 million.


The intention to relocate to downtown Kingston is commendable and is a position we have been consistently advocating in this space for all government entities.


However, we are puzzled by the decision to construct a new building for the foreign ministry which, based on the information provided, would cost Jamaica heavily.


The country has been informed that of the total amount needed for this "custom-made building", the Chinese Government is expected to offer $292 million as a grant while the Jamaican Government will finance the remainder.


Given the fact that there are thousands of square feet of empty State-owned office space in downtown Kingston, the question that we pose to the Government is, why build?


We recall very well Mrs Pat Sinclair-McCalla, the CEO of the Public Sector Transformation Unit (PSTU), saying last year February that an audit of the number of government entities that currently own property and those that are paying rentals, as well as the square footage of the space being occupied, had been completed to aid in cost-cutting.


"What is being proposed by us is that wherever public bodies have their own property we see how best we can refurbish these properties to accommodate government entities that are currently paying rent to the private sector," she said at the time.


After that comment, we had thought that the Government was on the right track, despite the reluctance of some individuals in the political directorate and the civil service to relocate downtown.


The cold, hard fact that those who resist need to accept is that the country cannot afford extravagances. A new building to house foreign ministry officials and their staff is not necessary when there exists space -- already owned by the Government -- that, if creatively utilised, could serve our purposes well.


As it now stands, rental of expensive office space uptown is costing the State millions of dollars each month. In fact, a November 2005 survey by the Observer found that in most cases, the Government was paying higher rates than what private companies paid for similar accommodation.


That simply doesn't make sense. Not in a soft economy like ours. That November 2005 survey found that the Government-owned Urban Development Corporation had 103,000 square feet of empty office space downtown.


Some of that may very well be occupied now. However, we would not be surprised to learn that it isn't or that there now exists more space because of a preference for working from buildings uptown.


It's time to wake up and smell the coffee.



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