The public purse

After what seemed like an eternity, the State Insurance Treasury building on Independence Avenue was finally opened. Whew! What the hell took them so long? The short answer is that it was a government project, and for the most part, government projects just seem always to be riddled with mind-boggling delays and enormous cost over-runs. Of course, the contractor is not without blame, and there is a thinking that at some point, he will have to give an account as to what, in the name of all that is good, happened. Nonetheless, this type of construction run-around is par for the course, and a host of other factors, never mind the contractor, must be baked into the inevitable boondoggle that is called government spending. (Sigh!) The poor public purse!

Anyway, it was with some measure of relief that that we noted the grand opening of the Accountant General’s Department, aka the Government Treasury in a building owned by the State Insurance Corporation. It is a handsome building, very tastefully appointed, and a beautiful addition to our modern city. Well, actually, we thought some of the windows could be a trifle more pleasing to the eye, rather than the holes in concrete that they are. They really add nothing to the aesthetics of the edifice. But . . . these designers – God help them!

We submit that the buildings of the future should take into consideration the character and Old World charm (the little that is left) of St. John’s. They ought not to be merely utilitarian slabs of ugly concrete, as are many of the modern structures that have gone up in recent times. The Town and Country Planner, the Development Control Authority and the folks concerned with the conservation of the quaint and lovely structures in our city, should collaborate in that regard. (See Barbados, St. Kitts, Santo Domingo, old San Juan and Havana as examples where the old and the new have come together to make great beauty).

Interestingly, the grand opening of the government treasury was marred by the shameful realization that it took all of six years and profligate spending of taxpayer dollars (we are being kind) for this relatively small building to be completed. And that’s a low-down dirty shame! Needless to say, Minister in the Ministry of Works, and the government pit-bull on ‘waste of time’ and ‘waste of money,’ Honorable Lennox Weston, was not amused. Neither are we, by the way! Said the good and earnest minister, “This should be a lesson for all government statutory bodies that no longer will we allow projects to go over budget…by nearly 75 percent. It is no longer acceptable because we want to be congenial and nice to each other to pat each other on the back if a building takes six years to build. It doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.” Hallelujah, Mr. Minister! You are holding the purse strings! Testify!

And testify, he did! Just as he called out National Housing and Bahamas Hot Mix for cost over-runs and exasperating delays, he wielded the whip of righteous indignation thusly, “And so, while we are here to celebrate the completion of the project [State Insurance Treasury Building], all of us as taxpayers, all of us as voters, all of us who know how hard it is to earn money, we are all our brother’s keeper and we are responsible for holding the government’s feet to the fire to say we will never ever allow three buildings by the same contractor to cost us over $50 million extra,” The denouement to his wrath, a la Jesus in the temple overturning the money tables and scolding the moneychangers, was a finger (could easily have been the middle finger) poked at the former contractor, who is also responsible for the Antigua and Barbuda Department of Marines Services (ADOMS) debacle: “And so, the next big issue is … we are facing the same problem at the ADOMS building. The guy who was given the job … who was in charge of three major projects in this country and cost the people of this country over $50 million – we want the police to find him because we want our money back.” Preach, Brother Weston, Preach! We are calling on you – because you seem to be the lone voice crying in the wilderness – to continue shining the light in the dark corners of this administration. Unlike many of your colleagues, history will be kind to you for daring to speak out on behalf of the people and the squandering of their money.

Of course, while you’re looking at the beam in the eye of others, Mr. Minister, (and we salute you for that) it behooves you to take care of the beam in your own as well. And this has to do with our earlier discussion about the eyesores and threats to life and limb around St. John’s. They are quite plentiful, and would really take up a great deal of space in their enumeration, so in the interest of time and space we will mention but a few. First, there is the disrespectful and disgusting mosquito-infested and putrid swamp at the north-westerly corner of the Governor General’s residence (next to the YMCA). What a disgrace! Then there is the treacherous crater on Cross Street, just west of the current treasury building, east of the Burger King! What a disaster! That hole was repaired, with great flourish, a few days before Carnival. Unreal! What’s up with Public Works, eh? Not to mention the horrid fence around the Country Pond! And the decrepit benches on Independence Avenue! And the run-down appearance of the round-about at the entrance to the Governor General’s residence. And the displaced fence at the entrance to the Ministry of Agriculture. And on and on and on . . . ad nauseam . . . Oh well!

In the meantime, we urge the government not to tear down the old treasury building. It is a charming structure that once housed the infant Ottos Comprehensive School, before that school moved to its present location. We have heard that there are plans to convert it to an art gallery or something else along those lines. We endorse those plans. Please, do not turn it into a Chinese restaurant or divide it into stalls for hucksters and vendors of clothing and so on and so forth. The building is much more than that!

Actually, before the treasury was moved to upper High Street, this writer’s recollection was that it was located in a picturesque wooden colonial building on the area that once housed the Bryson’s Bottling Plant on lower High Street, across from the General Post Office. That building was home to the treasury downstairs and the St. John’s Public Library upstairs. Prior to that, the building was home to the infant Antigua Grammar School before the school was moved to its present location on Old Parham Road. The lower High Street treasury building was abandoned after the great earthquake of October 8th 1974. Sigh! We wish it could have been saved. So much history!

Again, we are pleased that the building that was once home to vermin on Independence Avenue is now open for business – the peoples’ business, that is! Here’s hoping that with the renewed vigilance being displayed by the good Minister Weston, that the public purse strings will be tightened to prevent all the strange things that seem to happen to the peoples’ money whenever the government is involved. New building; new dispensation! Because when the people go to the cupboard, we trust that the cupboard will not be bare! See Old Mother Hubbard!