The government is once again proving there is nothing like a financial crisis to sharpen one’s focus.
After six years in office the Dr Keith Rowley administration now appears to be moving with haste to tackle the decades-old problems at the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA). Predictably, in doing so it has concluded that the source of WASA’s problem lies in its management. Consequently, its first move is the immediate removal of Alan Poon King as acting chief executive officer and the upgrade of chairman Dr Lennox Sealy to the position of executive director. This would give the Minister of Public Utilities and, by extension, the government a more direct line into the troubled public utility.
It was almost surreal to see Mr Poon King, the acting CEO for four years, sitting silently at yesterday’s news conference while Minister Marvin Gonzales lay the blame for WASA’s problems squarely at the feet of the management. Minister Gonzales may be youthful, but as a minister with portfolio responsibility for WASA he would have access to the multiple reports which have diagnosed WASA’s symptoms of rot. All would reveal that while mismanagement is a key problem, the root of WASA’s problem goes beyond management to government policy and decision-making. To quote the Cabinet sub-committee’s report to be laid in Parliament on Friday, WASA, like Petrotrin and other State sector operations, became an “unwieldy, unproductive, unresponsive organisation” because of decades of efficiency sacrificed for “political patronage” and because management accountability was “exchanged” not only for industrial stability, as the reports states, but also for electioneering benefit.
As the country prepares to bite the bullet on WASA, neither the Government nor the Opposition, which will begin debating the way forward should be allowed to escape their responsibility for bringing WASA to this point of crisis after years of kicking the can down the road. While there is enough blame to go around, it is governments that have presided over the mess.
Now that the can has landed in the lap of the Rowley administration, its responsibility will be to achieve the transformation of WASA in a manner that is effective, reasonable and fair. We therefore look forward to the report that is to be laid by the Government in Parliament on Friday. Whatever the proposed course of action, the public will want to be assured that it is not being asked to carry the burden of the Government’s failures while accepting the responsibility for carrying a reasonable share of the burden of adjustment to declining national income.
While much has been made of consumers not paying bills and others stealing water without payment, the full size of the Government’s own debt to WASA for water remains unknown. The public also needs to know the facts behind WASA’s accumulation of $650 million in unpaid debt to contractors and its failure to maintain a substantial percentage of its plants and machinery in good working order.
Successive governments have provided poor oversight and management of Petrotrin and WASA and the country simply cannot afford a repeat.