Editorial: Bats in the Tower! (Updated)
Recent revelations about the bat infestation that has once again brought the Ministry of Justice to a standstill, serve to demonstrate the important role of health and environmental systems in the proper management of a country's affairs.
Sickened by the noxious fumes emitted by bats that reportedly live in the elevator shaft of the NCB South Tower, the Ministry staff has been unable to effectively carry out its work. More recently, the Public Health authorities have ordered the building evacuated. Amazingly, the bat infestation problem has been plaguing the Ministry since 2014 when the offices were first shut down after staff members were forced to seek medical attention, while others found relief from wearing masks on the job.
Former Justice Minister Mark Golding has outlined the difficulties that existed between the Ministry and its landlord, AIC Jamaica Limited. He said AIC had tried to fix the problem but had failed to find a permanent solution to eliminate the infestation of bats. One reads into this some indifference by the landlords to the health risks facing the staff. Given these risks, the former administration had taken a decision to move its operations.
Once again workflow at the Ministry has been interrupted by closure and the new Justice Minister Delroy Chuck is said to be spending time in the library ahead of pending relocation to premises on Constant Spring Road.
How the landlord/tenant problems are resolved between the ministry and AIC is a matter which ought to be of concern to the public, for at the very least, rent payments should have been withheld over the landlord's non-performance. There is also the matter of compensation for the workers who were sickened. Employers have an awesome responsibility to ensure the well-being and safety of their workforce, no less is expected of Government, which is the largest employer of labour in the island.
The situation at the Ministry of Justice is a trigger to the broader issue of the control and management of Government properties and how property decisions are made. For many years there has been robust discussion about the reconciliation and consolidation of Government assets as part of the much trumpeted public-service reform. However, wanton waste, inaction and indecision continue to exist where there should be a comprehensive policy governing the acquisition and disposal of State properties.
Take the Trelawny Multi-Purpose Stadium. Reports are that this multi-million dollar world-class facility remains largely unused and is home to stray animals while the public purse is pressured to pay huge security costs on a monthly basis. This is wholly unacceptable.
As of November 2014, the National Land Agency (NLA) reported that tenants who leased lands, as well as commercial and residential properties owed the Government more than $77 million in arrears. The Auditor-General's report for the period 2013/2014, which points to a messy affair regarding property management, stated also that 16 of 60 Government-owned residential properties were vacant and in need of repairs. These houses were generally in deplorable condition and there was no routine maintenance or repairs scheduled.
As the Andrew Holness-led administration goes about settings its economic agenda for the country, prudency demands a most rigorous examination and comprehensive review of Government real estate and assets.
The new mantra of change extends to the development and promotion of property management principles to eliminate waste and create efficiencies for the effective stewardship of State resources.
*NOTE: An earlier version of this article had said that the Auditor General's report was for the period 2014/15. That was incorrect. It was actually for the period 2013/14.