The Finance Committee met in camera Wednesday morning with regard to questions raised about details of ownership and compensation paid for land gazetted for the East-West Arterial Highway.
The questions were raised last Monday by Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush, who wanted to know, among other things, who owned the land taken by the road; what price the owners had been paid; and if there had been any cases where an owner had purchased the property through which the road ran soon before government gazetted it.
‘Certainly it can not be any problem for government to give details,’ Mr. Bush said.
Minister of Communications, Works and Infrastructure Arden McLean said he had an ‘active list’ of compensation paid as of 7 May, but he resisted making it public in Finance Committee. After the morning break, he commented further.
‘I can say I have received advice from the attorney general and people at Lands and Survey, and I can say to the Committee it is believed that it would not be in the best interests of government to disclose the amounts [paid in compensation] because it would prejudice ongoing negotiations and future negotiations,’ he said.
Mr. McLean said there was $6 million worth of active land negotiations ongoing, some dating back as far as 1996.
‘It’s no one’s fault,’ he said, speaking about the length of some of the negotiations.
Mr. Bush disagreed.
‘It’s every government’s fault,’ he said. ‘We should have paid these people that money a long time ago. 1996 until now?’
Mr. Bush said government needed to ‘clear the air’ about claims that people bought up land knowing the road was going through it.
The suggestion was made that the information be given to the Finance Committee behind closed doors.
‘I am really concerned about exposing [the details] at this time,’ Mr. McLean said. ‘We can go in camera and maintain the integrity of these negotiations. If we expose that here and lay it on the table, it becomes a public document.
‘If we exposed what one person got, the next person is going to demand the same.’
Mr. Bush insisted the public should be able to know what had been paid to people.
‘I don’t see what the problem is,’ he said
In fact, most, if not everything, Mr. Bush was asking for is a matter of public record. Any member of the public can inspect any Land Register or parcel file at Lands and Survey and determine who the owner of the parcel is, the size of the property and when the last transfer of ownership took place.
Regardless, the information was revealed to the Finance Committee in private rather than in the open chamber.
$13 million in compensation
Mr. McLean did say the total amount of estimated compensation for land used for the East-West Arterial and the Linford Pierson Highway extension was CI$13 million. He also said some $9 million had been paid in compensation for various road works over the past two years.
Mr. Bush asked why, if the government knew it was going to be paying a lot in compensation for roads, it only budgeted $3 million.
Mr. McLean explained that it had been the practice just to use the figure of $3 million every year and adjust the figure accordingly through supplemental appropriations. He said the practice had been going on for years.
‘We don’t know how much is going to be,’ he said. ‘We don’t know when the compensation will become due.’
Mr. Bush asked why not.
‘It has to go through negotiations,’ Mr. McLean responded, adding that he did not get involved in the negotiations personally. He said that often an assessment committee is used to conduct the negotiations.
‘Prior to me taking office, the assessment committee was rarely used,’ he said. ‘Since taking office, I have re-established the assessment committee, which is chaired by a magistrate.’
When negotiating a claim, most people take 75 per cent up front, Mr. McLean said.
‘After the road is completed and there’s an as-built survey, that 25 per cent [remaining] might turn into 10 per cent or that 25 per cent might turn into 35 per cent.’
Opposition MLA Julianna O’Connor-Connolly questioned the practice of budgeting $3 million for road compensation even when major road projects are planned as they have been by the current government. She pointed out that when government knows it will have a higher expenditure on the item it shouldn’t say the budget is balanced.
‘It’s not any deliberate attempt to mislead,’ Mr. McLean said.