During a recent Policy Dialogue on County Social Development Funds Reform held under the auspices of the USAID-funded Liberia Accountability and Voice Initiative (LAVI), Internal Affairs Minister Varney Sirleaf expressed concerns over persistent attempts by legislators to brazenly seize control of the County Development Funds. These concerns are indeed troubling and they should claim the concern of every well-meaning Liberian, particularly President George Weah, on whose shoulders rest the burdens of national development.
The Minister believes that the amended budget law of 2018, 2019 providing that the County Council of the County Social Development Fund (CSDF) shall be presided over by the Legislative Caucus Chairman or Co-chairman will ultimately serve to undermine transparency in the management of the County Development Funds. The Minister’s expressed concerns, in the opinion of this newspaper, is supported by evidence showing that legislators have historically been illegally dipping into funds allocated to county authorities to underwrite county specific development projects.
There is not a single county of the country’s 15 political subdivisions that has remained free of the scourge of unwarranted and corrupt intervention of legislators in the county development funds. This newspaper recalls for example the case of the Montserrado County Development Funds in which a legislator was caught on tape virtually trying to criminally coerce the county superintendent into connivance with a scheme to steal the county development funds. The nation remembers his “You eat some, I eat some” remarks to the Montserrado County Superintendent.
It is as though the public treasury (county development funds) is their virtual “slush fund” into which they can dip at will to satisfy their greedy and selfish personal desires. The recent statement, for example, by Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor, publicly declaring that “it is our time to eat” raised questions in the public about what is to be eaten-harvested rice, bitter-balls, pepper, okra, chickens, goats, cassava or just what? The answer, from a sampling of public opinion, is obvious and it refers to funds from the public treasury.
It is not money or wealth derived from the “sweat of their brows” rather, it is money stolen from the public treasury through the abuse of power and authority. What is particularly vexing about this is the fact that our legislators “eat” public funds “bad way” and get away with it as if it does not matter and, all the while, leaving their people to languish and wallow in abject poverty. In Bong County for instance students of the two largest high schools in the county, the Doloken Gboveh High School and the John Bakalu school are currently out of school.
This is because the schools are in a dilapidated state with leaky roofs that make learning under those conditions a trying exercise. The schools are reported to lack wooden desks and benches as well as other instructional and learning materials including the critical lack of libraries and science laboratories. The Bong County Community College (BCCC) whose construction began nearly five years ago is still not completed and owing mainly to the fact that the funds were stolen or misdirected. And guess what, legislators of that county are reported to be complicit in the theft of the funds.
According to the records, the County Development Fund(CDF) is presided over at the national level by a Dedicated Fund Committee. In the counties, the CDF is managed by the county administration and the Project Management Committee (PMC). The PMC has three members that are officially elected at the County Council Sitting for a term of three years. A chairman heads the PMC, closely assisted by a treasurer and a controller. The PMC manages the financial and technical aspects of the CDF.
They are charged with the responsibility of implementing the provisions of the resolutions from the County Council Sittings in various counties.. The 2013/2014 Budget Law mandates the PMC to ensure that transaction documents relating to the use of the CDF are in conformity and compliance with the Public Procurement and Concession Commission (PPCC) Act and Budget Implementation Regulations. However, according to official audit reports and quite contrary to the PPCC compliance requirement, many payment vouchers do not obtain the required supporting documents before payments are made.
Perennial failure by local administrators of the fund to maintain accurate records with supporting documents for transactions involving the use of the County Development Funds (CDF) procurement is determined to be a key factor tending to undermine transparency and accountability. The Public Procurement and Concession Commission Threshold Schedule requires mandatory compliance with provisions requiring the CDF, to publish contract award if the value is equal to or above US$20,000 for goods, US$10,000 for services, and US$30,000 for works.
Mandatory compliance with provisions requiring the use of the National Open Competitive Bidding process is required when the value of the procurement is equal to or below US$500,000 for goods, US$ 200,000 for service, and US$1,000,000 for works. Use of the International Competitive Bidding is mandatory when the amount involved is above the threshold for the National Open Competitive Bidding. Under these arrangements, the Ministry of Finance is required to participate in the negotiation and signing of contracts with values above US$250,000, and such contracts must be attested to by the Ministry of Justice.
However as the Auditor General’s report on the Bong County Social Development Fund covering the period April 1 to September 30, 2009 shows, the Public Financial Management and Public Procurement and Concession laws are routinely violated by managers of the CDF. Against this backdrop, this newspaper could not agree with the Minister more when he says that legislators, by virtue of their penchant to exercise unbridled use of power, will be dictating, capitalizing on the fears of the “common people, and have more say rather than the people for whom the funds are intended to benefit.
The Daily Observer joins the call for greater transparency in the management of the County Development Funds and say to our legislators, HANDS OFF THE COUNTY DEVELOPMENT FUNDS LAWMAKERS!