NEGRIL, Westmoreland — Mayor of St Ann’s Bay Sydney Stewart has rubbished claims, made by one of his councillors from the platform of a divisional meeting of the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP), that $61 million in Special Grant for Repairs (SGR) funds has gone missing from the local body.
He confirmed, however, that a councillor elected on a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) ticket has resigned because he is unhappy with the direction in which the corporation was going.
During last Saturday’s Negril division conference of the PNP, councillor for the Beecher Town Division in St Ann Ian Bell alleged that the money had gone “missing” and this had resulted in the corporation being unable to meet some of its financial obligations.
“Right now, as we speak, $61 million gone missing outta the St Ann Municipal Corporation. A nuh ask mi deh ask seh it gaan missing. A tell mi deh tell you,” Bell told party faithfuls.
“December gone, the St Ann Municipal Corporation could not pay their bill. They owed people for Christmas work until February this year. When I did my own enquiries, the SGR only has $1.6 million in it,” he added.
However, Stewart has dismissed Bell’s claims as politically motivated posturing and part of the PNP’s efforts to shore up support ahead of the local government election. The next poll is scheduled for February 2023.
“This is a move to disrupt the operations of the municipality because you know we are going into an election period,” said Stewart, who made it clear “there is no $61 million that is not accounted for”.
He pointed out that Bell had made a similar allegation in Ocho Rios last week during another political meeting.
“It is a political platform presentation,” said Stewart.
Speaking in Negril, Bell said he had sought answers but was told the money was in the pool spent as general funds.
“But me and you know seh SGR can’t spend eena general funds and if SGR is going to be spent, approval must be sought and granted. Suh dat deh money gaan,” Bell asserted.
However, on Monday Stewart told the Jamaica Observer that all 16 councillors had been provided with information about how the money was spent. He admitted that the money had been used to supplement the corporation’s general funds as a result of a shortfall brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“Councillor Bell, who is a part of the municipality, knows that between April and December last year, the SGR goes into general funds for general expenditure. It means therefore that it was subsidising most of the recurring cost in the municipality because we have at least 70 per cent of our revenue — internal or self-financing revenue — for the markets, the transportation centres, from properties managed by the municipality and some properties rented or leased by the municipality. So, our customers were using the COVID pandemic as reasons for not paying and that was understandable. So, municipalities right across Jamaica, we are losing approximately 70 per cent of our revenue that would allow us to take care of those recurring costs,” said Stewart.
The mayor said when questions were raised in the past, the director of finance had provided the same explanation.
“All the councillors, including councillor Bell, accepted the explanation and agreed then that, come January, we are going to ensure the SGR goes back into its regular place to ensure that we can address certain emergency development,” disclosed Stewart.
The mayor also noted that during the period in question last year, councillor Bell’s division had received more than 38 per cent of the funds.
But even as Stewart sought to give assurances that Bell’s allegations are mere political grandstanding, it appears there is trouble in the ranks. The corporation’s CEO Rovel Morris confirmed on Monday that Councillor Ian Isaacs (JLP) has indeed resigned from all posts and positions he once held in the corporation. However , he remains councillor for the Exchange Division.
On Saturday, Bell told Comrades that “a JLP councillor from the Exchange division” had handed in a resignation letter after which he said he had lost confidence in the mayor.
“From the administration [side of the corporation], I can tell you that he resigned from the chair of commercial services but he is still a councillor and still attends committee meetings,” said CEO Morris, who noted that he was unable to get into the councillor’s reason for resigning.
However, Stewart told the Observer that Isaacs had indicated that he did not like the direction in which the corporation was heading.