Next week marks the beginning of my 50th year in the Virgin Islands. In the early days, I was busy working to provide you with modern communications, and I did not pay much attention to local politics. I vaguely remember something about a contract to build the BVI High School with, I think, seven buildings, two of which mysteriously disappeared before construction. Hence the temporary huts all these years.
Since I retired, I have taken a lot more interest, and although I have no personal experience or evidence of any of these failures except the medical bills — just what has been in the press over the years — I have occasionally written about activities that strike me as questionable.
Sir Gary Hickinbottom says he may go back only four to five years in his commission of inquiry. That will bring a lot of relief to some people, and others may suddenly find that they have urgent business overseas for the next few months. I wonder: Can he stop people from evading giving evidence?
Here is a reminder of some events, in no particular order.
The greenhouses were to be built on Tortola and Virgin Gorda in order to make us self-sufficient in agricultural products. The land was cleared on both islands, and the Tortola facility eventually was constructed after years of delays.
Employment, training and marketing were supposed to follow, but the project stalled in part because it was found that the overseas contractor (who had a family connection to a VI legislator) had retained some sort of rights over the whole project. So nothing happened.
The Tortola units filled with weeds and were eventually blown away by Hurricane Irma. The VG units were never built, and the material probably lies rotting somewhere. The total cost was not disclosed, but the initial contract signed in 2008 was for $5.4 million.
Then there was the four-lane highway between the Road Town and Port Purcell roundabouts. It was a good idea, but in order to circumvent the approved tendering process for large projects, and to provide work, the project was broken down into petty contracts. At the time, petty contracts were those worth no more than $60,000, below which tendering was not required. This was when I coined the phrase, “A contractor in the BVI is two men, a wheelbarrow, and a sack of cement.”
There were so many small sections, each a few yards long, that the finish between them was awful and a lot of the work had to be redone in order to get a level surface. And why couldn’t that building in the “island” at Pasea have been purchased?
Such contract splitting has continued through the years with similar results.
For the recent Elmore Stoutt High School wall, the auditor general found that the project was split up into more than 70 work orders and 15 petty contracts. There did not seem to be any reason for the varying heights of the sections, and the wall was mostly useless for keeping people in or out. The cost? More than $1 million.
The Sea Cows Bay retaining wall was a similarly costly project. I remember passing by the local representative holding a meeting in the road with about 12 contractors. It is still standing, however.
Also in Sea Cows Bay was the harbour project. During a Virgin Islands Party administration some years ago, mysterious work occurred in the area. Lots of harbour wall sections were built and stored, land was filled, and the seabed was dredged — all out of the blue. Nobody seemed to know of any government project or funding. Goodness knows how much was spent. Then the government changed and work stopped, and very little, if anything, has happened since.
Then there was the proposed senior home. A piece of land was eventually purchased at Spooners Estate (reckoned by some to be the wrong site for this project), but nothing happened for quite some time. Then a contract was signed for the building of the foundation. That is as far as it got. We do love our millions, don’t we?
That brings me to other government buildings. After the administration building on Wickhams Cay was completed, it was found to be inadequate to house our overblown civil service. It was supposed to stop the need for renting space in private buildings. But no. Not only was it not big enough, but it suffered from mould and a leaky roof and got badly damaged in Hurricane Irma, necessitating the need for more government rental of private buildings. Private builders, many of them government cohorts, have been only too happy to oblige. I don’t think the final bill is in yet.
A nearby problem was the Road Town traffic lights, which apparently were more a question of bull-headedness than corruption. Traffic lights do work on some roundabouts overseas, but those roundabouts are huge.
As for petty contracts, the sudden increase from $60,000 to $100,000 was probably overdue at the time, considering inflation, but the system has been flagrantly abused to award many smaller contracts without tendering — in many cases breaking down large projects, which is even worse. Too many of these contracts have been let to favoured contractors.
Cabinet also has overused its power to waive the tender process for large contracts, often “in the interests of required speed of completion of the project.”
At Elmore Stoutt High School after Irma, for instance, each of the four floors of the L-shaped building was contracted to a different company, and yet a fifth one was hired to provide air-conditioning. What a travesty!
Bigger projects have also been awarded without a tender process. A major no-bid contract was signed with the United Kingdom-based Biwater in 2010 for a water and sewage project. This company’s history raised questions, but even so it was let down by government, which said there was plenty of groundwater at Paraquita Bay when there wasn’t. Then all sorts of obstacles were put in the company’s way before it could obtain water from the sea.
The new hospital was also contracted to an overseas company, which also had local connections. Apparently, government did not carry out sufficient due diligence, which likely would have discovered that the company lacked the needed experience in building hospitals with all the special requirements. Government cancelled the contract a bit late in the day and incurred massive charges for doing so.
I believe the project was completed by a local firm with expert supervision, although the top two floors were not put into use until recently. Incidentally, regarding the change of name, don’t our legislators know that they passed a law banning the changing of traditional names? The same could apply to the recent spats with Governor Gus Jaspert about renaming places in the territory.
On a related note, who can forget Mount Peebles and Mount Savage? Dozens of trucks and other equipment were paid to build them with material excavated for the new Government House and the then-Peebles Hospital. Later, they were demolished and moved to reclaimed land at West End, again using masses of equipment and barges.
As for the BVI Airways debacle, there is not much I can add, but somebody must have ordered somebody to write cheques or make transfers against the agreed schedule. If they hadn’t done that, the airline would have gone bust earlier, but we would have saved some money. And did nobody read up about Baltia Airlines beforehand?
Regarding the airport on Beef Island, in my time we effectively went from a very small shed to a bigger shed to a more modern building, but without air-conditioning — or even fans or a restaurant originally — and paid millions to purchase the additional land required.
The new pier park, meanwhile, is a nice facility, but why can’t we be more honest about what went on there? Such a huge overrun of the original costings must be explained, and no doubt will be.
The National Health Insurance programme was a good idea, but the introduction was mismanaged. Its finances were immediately put in jeopardy by the government’s failure to apply price control to private medical practices.
Some clinics apparently put up their prices by as much as 300 percent the day NHI was introduced. Of course, three of our legislators at the time were doctors, but I don’t suppose that had anything to do with it.
NHI is now struggling financially, seems to have reduced coverage, and either needs funding from government or an increase in contributions.
The whole concept is wrong. They should have followed the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, ensuring that public facilities (hospitals and clinics) could cover all, or most, health requirements, and leaving people free to utilise private facilities if they wish, with or without private health insurance.
On statutory bodies, lately it seems that government may have taken to replacing board members when they do not respond to coercion to do something that is against their principles or the remit of the organisations. Often their replacements are inexperienced cronies.
These seem to be desperate measures in the light of our apparent financial plight brought about by the present situation. Acceptance of the UK’s terms for a loan guarantee would have enabled government to arrange loans at favourable rates of interest.
That brings me to finances for the post-Irma recovery and Covid-19. There seem to be questions about how aid was distributed for both purposes. And of course many government and private properties have yet to be repaired.
Over the years, successive governments also have spent millions on consultancies. Many of them might not have been completed, and very few have seen the light of day or resulted in improvements to society.
Government, for instance, paid $98,000 to a consultant to explore whether or not drag racing was a feasible project. To date, there is no drag racing facility.
Years ago, more than $500,000 was spent on a consultancy to see if medical schools were a possibility here. The study was never published, but in 2018 Cabinet approved a medical institution to operate here. Classes were supposed to start in September 2019, but to date there is no activity.
There have been other contracts for speech writing and image projection.
In 2009 and 2010, a consultant received nearly $600,000 to organise a youth programme called the Neigbourhood Partnership Project, but the endeavour was short-lived, and he provided only patchy explanations for how the money was spent.
Recently, two successive contracts went to the same consultant, but again he has not fully explained what he has accomplished. His main visible work seems to be hosting a regular radio show extolling self-determination.