Edmond Campbell, Senior Staff Reporter
"PHEW." AN audible sigh of relief echoed across the floor of Gordon House on Wednesday from E.G. Hunter, chief executive officer of the National Works Agency (NWA).
His seeming ease of anxiety came at the end of a gruelling three-hour-long cross-examination from members of an oversight committee of Parliament who were less than pleased with explanations about disparities between engineers' estimates and the final cost to complete government projects.
Fitz Jackson, member of Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), expressed grave reservations about the competence of the NWA engineers and the advice they give in relation to engineers' estimates.
The committee was discussing a number of Jamaica Development Infrastructure Programme (JDIP) projects.
Addressing the NWA CEO, Jackson said: "I don't feel that we are getting any reliable, competent advice from entities like yours to guide the decisions that we make.
"We are not engineers here and at the end of the day ... the taxpayers out there don't hold (persons in the ministry) responsible and they hold us as failing to protect their interest," Jackson contended.
"How do you explain a bridge that was estimated at $45 million ending up costing the taxpayer $150-odd million, and I must just accept a plausible explanation and be contented and walk away," Jackson asked in relation to the spike in the cost of the Queensborough Bridge from 2005 to present.
Committee chairman Edmund Bartlett was equally dissatisfied with what he described as flawed engineers' estimates, which he said "never ever coincides with what the contract sum is".
He said the PAAC had received reports from the NWA that were replete with overruns and differences in terms of projected cost as against the final outrun.
"Our committee needs to have a better comfort level with the technical output from your ministry as it relates to the cost," Bartlett stated.
He charged that a mockery was being made of the budget process when the Parliament could not rely on the projected numbers that were presented by entities such as the NWA.
Committee member Dr Andrew Wheatley bluntly questioned whether NWA engineers were competent.
"There are inaccurate estimates being presented for approval and I believe a lot of the taxpayers' money is going down the drain, if that is the true case," he added.
Bartlett said the PAAC was actively considering bringing in external technical competence.
Responding, the NWA head said the committee members' concerns were germane to how the agency carried out its task.
"The maladies associated with JDIP are well known and well recited. There is no gainsaying that JDIP as conceived and executed leaves a lot to be desired," he said.
Hunter divulged that as a member of the Cabinet subcommittee on infrastructure, debate on the burning issue of disparity in engineers' estimates and the final project costs took place every Monday.
However, he sought to explain that estimates from ministries, departments and agencies were sometimes prepared by engineers, quantity surveyors, "by qualified people, by not-so-qualified people, sometimes by experienced people and not-so-experienced people".
Hunter said he has completed a paper with proposals to address these concerns and was willing to share the document with the committee.