WP yet to respond on town council's finances: Desmond Lee

Minister Desmond Lee (centre from left) and Dr Lee Bee Wah, (right) Grassroots Adviser and MP for Nee Soon GRC tour the Springleaf nature parks.

The Workers' Party (WP) has yet to respond on the financial state of its Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee said last night.

It instead launched a "coordinated online campaign to distract the public, using falsehoods, half-truths and speculations, by friends, sympathisers and proxies".

"This is what the WP often does when caught under the spotlight - raise a flurry of red herrings in the hope that people forget that they have not come clean," he said in a second statement in as many weeks on the issue of AHPETC's finances.

Mr Lee noted the Ministry of National Development (MND) had addressed these "untruths".

In a statement on Thursday, the MND outlined how grants are disbursed to all town councils, how surpluses are used, and detailed aspects of AHPETC's income and expenditure.

The town council was red flagged over a sharp increase in its service and conservancy charges (S&CC) arrears and for corporate governance, in the latest annual report on town councils.

Contacted last week, AHPETC chairman and Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim said the town council was studying S&CC data and would respond after the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) ends its audit into AHPETC's financial statements.

Mr Lee said yesterday accountability and transparency were key issues. About one-third of residents defaulted on S&CC payments based on an arrears report by AHPETC in April last year. This was "a sudden spike beyond the already high arrears rates" that it consistently reported, he said. "How did this happen? And what is the current arrears rate? Only the town council knows the answer, but it refuses to answer. Why?" he said.

He added that it now "refuses to tell the public the truth".

He was also critical of Ms Lim's explanation for AHPETC failing to submit arrears reports since May last year. She said its finance team was busy with the audit by the AGO and its own commercial audit, and did not have time to prepare the reports.

Describing this as an "excuse", he said AHPETC stopped sending arrears reports 10 months before the AGO audit started. Also, it ought to know the state of arrears whether or not an audit was going on.

He also asked if S&CC grants to AHPETC were used to cover a deficit in Hougang Town Council. He said Aljunied Town Council had an operating surplus of $3.3 million in financial year 2010 - when it was under the People's Action Party. But by financial year 2012 - under the WP - it had an operating deficit of $734,000. After the 2011 General Election, the WP merged Aljunied and Hougang town councils. It later added Punggol East after winning a by-election there in January last year.

On Nov 7, Mr Lee said Hougang - under WP chief Low Thia Khiang until 2011 - managed to avoid a cash flow problem only after merging with Aljunied.

He said yesterday that Aljunied residents had a right to know what happened.

Last night, AHPETC vice-chairmen Pritam Singh and Png Eng Huat said the town council "has not obfuscated or intentionally delayed" responding on matters Mr Lee raised.

"(The town council has) made it known to the public that we are looking into the S&CC arrears data, and will respond to the query on the financial and arrears situation in due course."

They were also surprised Mr Lee saw it as an issue of transparency and accountability as AHPETC's accounts were made available to the AGO - and they expect it to be made public when the audit ends.


This article was first published on Nov 22, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.