15 December 2014

Blindly Accusing AHPETC

A reader, Lau Hak Tong, wrote to The Straits Times (Worrying Lack of Transparency, 13 Dec 2014):

"The public streets in the vicinity of the Hougang-Kovan Melody area, where I have lived for the past 30 years, used to be swept daily under the former Ajunied Town Council - until the changing of hands after the last general election more than three years ago.
These days, I hardly see any estate cleaners sweeping or doing maintenance work on public streets. Most of the streets are littered with fallen leaves and rubbish. Often, outdated event banners can be found strung on the road railings.

It is now obvious that the town council has chosen not to be transparent.
It inherited a comfortable surplus when it took over from the previous management.…
What has happened to the surplus?"

Section 5 of the Environmental Public Health Act says:

5.—(1) The Director-General [of Public Health] shall cause public streets, including the footways thereof, and public parks, beaches, foreshores, canals, waterways and unoccupied State land, to be properly swept and cleansed and watered so far as is reasonably practicable, and refuse and filth of every sort found thereon to be collected and removed.

[Act 15 of 2014 wef 01/04/2014]

Mr Lau's claim that the public streets in the vicinity of Hougang-Kovan Melody have not been cleared of fallen leaves and rubbish contradicts Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan's statement in Parliament on 17 February 2014 that "our streets are swept daily". Did Dr Balakrishnan mean that some, but not all, our streets are swept daily? Or perhaps sweeping the streets does not include clearing fallen leaves and other rubbish from the streets? If Dr Balakrishnan truly believed that all our public streets are swept and fallen leaves and other rubbish are removed daily, then either he does not know what is happening on the ground or he has been told something quite different. Something is not right.

What if Mr Lau meant that the fallen leaves and rubbish were on the footway or grass verge, rather than on the street?

Recall what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day Rally speech:

"[Mayor Low] Yen Ling’s residents had complained that the walkway to Bukit Gombak MRT Station was often dirty. One resident told her he saw a fishball stick there on the walkway. The next day, he came back, he looked, and the same fishball stick was still in the same place. … [Yen Ling] managed to establish what happened and here is what she found.

Listen very carefully. On the left of the walkway is a slope. The slope belongs to NEA, okay? In the middle, this is a park connector, park connector, 顾名思义— you think of the name, belongs to NParks. On the right-hand side is a pavement. Pavement is next to the road, road comes under LTA. So the fishball stick was on the road side and the road side was only cleared every two days because each of the organisations had their own cleaner, own schedules and they did it separately. So I do not think it makes a lot of sense and everybody has agreed and we have resolved this case. From now on, NEA 'bao ga liao' (is in charge of all three sectors)."

According to Mr Lee, it's National Environment Agency that is in charge, and it has been in charge since the amendment to section 5 of the Public Environmental Health Act took effect on 1 April 2014.

If that is not clear enough, Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Grace Fu Hai Yien told Parliament on 11 March 2014:

"NEA formed the Department of Public Cleanliness ('DPC') on 1 April 2012 to better integrate and manage the cleaning of public functions that fall under the responsibility of different Government agencies. DPC is in the process of rolling out seven new integrated public cleaning contracts. This way, we aim to achieve a coordinated and effective cleaning regime so that Singaporeans can enjoy clean public spaces." 

That was 32 months ago.

Furthermore, the Town Councils Act doesn't give any town council jurisdiction over public streets and adjoining footways, and the town council does not and cannot have any responsibility for cleaning or maintaining them, nor can it expend any of the town council's funds to clean or maintain them.

PM Lee has set up Municipal Services Office, and Mr Lau should have checked with it which organisation is responsible for clearing the fallen leaves and rubbish on the public streets.

Mr Lau is mistaken. AHPETC is not responsible for clearing the fallen leaves and rubbish from the public streets near where he lives. NEA is.

Unfortunately for NEA, Mr Lau inadvertently pointed out what it was supposed to be doing, but has not been doing, in Hougang-Kovan Melody.

Event Banners
Event banners should be removed by the organisation that had put them up. I'm just guessing here, but maybe the Citizens' Consultative Committee ("CCC") is the more likely organisation that had put up the event banners because, where I live, the CCC organises more events and puts up many more event banners than the town council.

Town Council's Surplus

Mr Lau referred to the "comfortable surplus" that Aljunied-Hougang Town Council ("AHTC") inherited from Aljunied Town Council, echoing Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee.

I will share some brief observations about AHTC's operating surplus here.

There are two types of surpluses — the surplus for the year and the accumulated surplus. These are analogous to the profit that a company earns in a financial year and the reserves that are part of sharewholders' funds in a company, respectively.

The surplus for the preceding year cannot be inherited. Circumstances change from year to year. The cost of third-party services may rise or fall because of higher wages, higher/lower COEs for business vehicles, higher rental of the service providers' office or factory premises, higher/lower electricity tariffs etc.

Comparing FYE March 2012 with FYE March 2011, conservancy and service ("C&S") fees after transfer to the sinking fund increased from $21.9 million to $23.3 million. I do not know whether AHTC (as it was known then) increased C&S rates, but the number of HDB units in Aljunied GRC and Hougang constituency before the 2011 general election is different from the number in AHTC due to the electoral boundaries of Aljunied GRC and Hougang ward having been redrawn for the 2011 general election; this was evidenced by appropriations from Marine Parage Town Council and appropriations to Ang Mo Kio Town Council and Pasir-Ris Punggol Town Council, which were necessitated by the transfers of HDB units into or out of the newly formed AHTC, respectively. Also, new units may have been completed and old units demolished.

Operating expenditure increased from $27.0 million to $32.1 million.

Lift maintenance increased from $1.9 million to $3.6 million (it increased further to $4.0 million in FYE March 2013). Lift servicing and repairs are not discretionary items of expense. Do residents want less maintenance or fewer repairs, assuming it is permissible at all? One reason for the increase is that many lifts were installed or upgraded under the lift upgrading programme, for which Aljunied Town Council received a $19.2 million grant from the Ministry of National Development in FYE March 2011.

Water and electricity increased from $9.0 million to $10.2 million. Average low tension electricity tariffs increased 13 per cent from FYE March 2011 to FYE March 2012. More lifts consume more electricity.

The median gross monthly income (including employer CPF) from work of full-time employed residents increased 7.1 per cent from June 2011 to June 2012.

As with all other organisations, AHPETC needs to increase S&C rates as expenses increase, to preserve its financial viability.

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