The State would have to pay almost $1 billion to landowners whose properties are in the direct path of the extension of the San Fernando to Point Fortin Highway.
This comes three months after Minister of National Security Stuart Young said Cabinet will initiate a commission of enquiry (CoE) to examine the circumstances in which $500 million was paid to homeowners to acquire land for the extension of the highway.
The commission is to be chaired by retired judge Sebastian Ventour.
Young revealed that over 520 properties were acquired and paid for by the State while 459 properties which are in the path of the 47 kilometre highway still had to be acquired .
In April, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley turned the sod for the contract at a cost of $1.89 billion. Five local contractors were awarded the contract.
The four-lane highway will be completed in the first quarter of 2021.
George said what was alarming about the project under the People’s Partnership (PP) government was “mega settlements. There were six or eight of them. There was one area that raised eyebrows.”
Under the PP administration the project’s budget was $7.5 billion.
Constructora OAS was awarded a $5.2 billion contract for the project of which $3.8 billion was paid.
In 2016, the Government terminated OAS’ contract and was able to recover $1 billion of taxpayers’ money through the court.
The following year, Nidco issued fresh contracts to five local contractors to restart the billion-dollar highway.
George said under the PP, the State approached one landowner who was able to get Town and Country Planning Division’s (TCPD) approval for his property to be developed into a commercial business.
George said the landowner was treated as though TCPD’s developmental approval was going to cost him millions of dollars in disturbance cost and losses and submitted a hefty claim.
“So at the end of the day a piece of swamp land that had absolutely nothing on it...the disturbances came up to twenty-something million dollars.”
When the landowners’ claim was put forward George said, “Nidco just decided not to pay it...that we needed to have it reviewed. So this was flagged.”
In another case, George said a landowner had put in a claim for his land and disturbance cost at $75 million.
He only received “twenty-something million dollars” for the land before 2015.
When the disturbance cost came before Nidco for payment, George said it was shut down.
“This was an upper-tier questionable action. So we asked for that to be reviewed again.”
George said the cost to these mega properties “were just outrageous. So that is one aspect that has to be investigated.”
He said the Government also gave out lands to people who had to be relocated.
If an affected household had four members of a family each above the age of 18, George said the entire family was to be granted a lot of land.
However, each member in the family was given land.
“That is what we found. It was just not sitting right with us. So we just flagged it.”
These matters, George said will be dealt with in the CoE.
In going forward, George said more caution with public money needed to take place.
George said there was a cap of $800 million for “land acquisition and outreach,” with the project.
He said $100 million went towards outreach with the remaining $700 million to be handed out to property owners who surrendered their lands to the State.
“So far $527 million has already been paid (in land acquisition),” George said.
However, he said the Government still has to acquire and pay for properties “which was working up to $400 and something million. So we still have $400 and something million to pay for new properties. All the properties were not acquired and paid for. We have not really sat and settled with all owners.”
George said when one calculates the total bill that is expected to paid to landowners from San Fernando to Point Fortin the figure would be “close to 1 billion dollars” bearing in mind the $500 million that have already been handed out to previous landowners.
He said Nidco has no intention of paying for agricultural and mangrove lands beyond its value.
“So how could the cost be so much? It is unusual and at worst it was a reckless application of the public funds and people needed to exercise greater care and caution.”
When Government decides to do a project, George said one would not assume scams and reckless spenders to execute the project.
“If that happens you have to find them out and then deal with them.”
Minister in the Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs Fitzgerald Hinds, in his budget contribution in Parliament on Friday, spoke about the project, stating “there was a tremendous amount of litigation taking place arising out of land acquisition in those matters. There are hundreds of properties that were acquired that is not needed for the project.”
Hinds said properties that the State paid for “the people stayed there...they get paid again.”
Story by SHALIZA HASSANALI
Image Flash Back: Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley and Government MPs Edmond Dillon and Nicole Olivierre turn the sod for the San Fernando to Point Fortin Highway extension as NIDCO Chairman Herbert George left and Minister of Works Rohan Sinanan right looks on.