Thu | Apr 2, 2020

Multi-modal mistake - Taxpayers paid millions after stop order barred Clarendon residents from building homes, improving properties

Published:Sunday | February 9, 2020 | 12:35 AMErica Virtue/Senior Sunday Gleaner Writer

The compensation sum paid to individuals affected by a stop order issued more than a decade ago on homeowners in Clarendon appears to be subject to iron-clad secrecy in the Ministry of Transport and Mining.

The sum has been described as a “multi-modal millions of dollars mistake”.

Officials contacted over the course of three weeks were either unwilling to talk, had no knowledge of the matter, could not recall, or, where it could be recalled, did not disclose the payment sum.

Recently however, The Sunday Gleaner was told that $7.8 million was paid in 2016. The sum paid in 2017 could not be ascertained and almost 50 households have been affected.

The scheme, now known as Rowington Meadows, was shut down on the instructions of the ministry during the reign of Mike Henry under the 2007-2011 Golding administration. Among the affected were sugar workers employed to the New Yarmouth Estate under the Sugar Housing Corporation.

Residents were told, via a June 20, 2008 letter from the ministry, not to make any improvements to their properties and loans were denied to qualified beneficiaries of the National Housing Trust (NHT).

The NHT allows homeowners who have never received a benefit access to $2.5 million to make changes or improvements and 100 per cent financing on scheme units.

Affected individuals told The Sunday Gleaner that the action was a pre-emptive strike against individuals whose property value would have appreciated.

Stop order placed on development

Tanya Bedward, senior director of transport policy in the transport ministry, said that, at the time, “studies were conducted to explore the prospect for the Vernamfield development. The anticipated runways would have impacted some housing developments, in particular the New Yarmouth scheme for sugar workers.”

“In 2008, a stop order was placed on the development by the NHT. The stop order meant that no loans were disbursed and no work could be done,” she explained.

Letters were sent to at least four bodies representing the sugar workers.

“The studies concluded that the initially conceived runway would not affect them after all and, in 2011, the order was lifted. The NHT conducted evaluation and laid out the level of impact on the homeowners and determined compensation, taking into consideration inflation costs. Compensation was made by the ministry after approval from the finance ministry,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.

Bedward did not provide the sum paid nor the numbers of persons impacted.

“I have some information on the sum that was paid out, but I do not believe it is the complete figure because other individuals worked on the project. So I don’t want to give misleading information about how much was paid out,” she concluded.

Howard Mitchell, who served as chairman of the NHT from 2008 to 2012, said he had no knowledge of the matter.

“If anything like that was done, it was done without the knowledge of the board. Had it come to the board, I would not have agreed with the action,” he stated.

Noel Arscott, member of parliament for Clarendon South, where some or most of the affected individuals reside, confirmed the existence of the stop order.

“As far as the residents were concerned, they were being prevented from doing any improvement on their houses or continuing building their houses,” he stated.

Some mortgagors stopped payments while the order was in effect.

Morais Guy, who held the housing portfolio in 2012, could not recall the matter, except for a decision for compensation.

Audrey Sewell, who served as permanent secretary in the ministry under Dr Omar Davies, who was in 2012 the minister, and Guy, while she was unable to give specific details, said she was required to conduct an investigation. She recalled concluding that compensation should be given to the affected persons.

According to Arscott, some affected homeowners settled on properties with 99-year leases under the Farm and Settle Programme for dairy farmers. Others were given legal tenure under Project Land Lease. Residents domiciled in Vernamfield, other sections of Rowington, Rhymesbury, Race Course and Gimme-Me-Bit were also barred from doing any home improvement work.