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Police vehicles in need of repair at VMCOTT compound, Cross Crossing, San Fernando.

ANNA-LISA-PAUL and

SHALIZA HASSANALI

The T&T Police Service (TTPS) is owing more than $40 million to several garages and auto repair shops across the country for work done on police vehicles. The outstanding debt has forced more than 20 garages and repair shops to close their doors over the last six weeks while others have been sending home workers

The action taken by these garages has left hundreds of police vehicles inoperable as they lie idle at police stations and repair yards nationwide.

Businessman Inshan Ishmael, who owns one of the garages affected by the non-payment of money for repairs to TTP’s vehicles, said apart from the $40 million “the TTPS is already owing over $100 million for goods and services” provided. He said this figure included parts for the newer model of vehicles owned by the police service.

The Vehicle Management Corporation of T&T (VMCOTT), established in 2000 to repair and service state-owned private and commercial vehicles, is still owed $14 million for repairs done to police vehicles over the last eight years.

TTPS altogether owes $154 million for vehicle repairs, parts, and services.

Meanwhile, the criminal elements are already capitalising on this shortfall of police resources while business owners and homeowners are left in the lurch waiting for police to arrive hours after a crime and when they do, it is sometimes on foot.

The CEO of VMCOTT Natasha Prince recalled that in May 2019 they had been owed $18 million. However, a reconciliation of the TTPS account showed a payment of $4 million had been made in 2012. Since then, no further payments have been made to VMCOTT. Prince said although they have not been given any business by the TTPS over the last year, they are still being owed $14 million.

When Prince made those claims in May 2019, Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith shot back insisting that VMCOTT would not be paid until the invoices are provided for the work done. Prince said last week that VMCOTT supplied the TTPS with invoices in February of this year, but was not given any assurance of when they would be paid.

Although there are claims in the public that at least 50 to 60 per cent of the police vehicle are down, there is no definitive figure to reflect how many vehicles are not functioning at this time. However, last year Griffith revealed that a staggering 500 vehicles had been taken out of service between 2016-2018. He stated that at least one-fifth of the police vehicles were down for repairs. Griffith attributed this to an inefficient maintenance system and admitted the absence of those vehicles had adversely impacted the TTPS’s crime-fighting abilities.

Griffith described the preventative maintenance system as flawed and said up until the middle of 2018, a police vehicle was being written off and taken out of service at least every three to four days. He said in many cases back then, those responsible for managing the fleet would wait until the vehicle was critically damaged or worn out before sending it for repairs. In the face of these shortcomings, an audit of the TTPS’s fleet was ordered last year to assess the status of each vehicle.

‘Suppliers spent millions to stock items’

Ishmael, who confirmed to the Sunday Guardian that his business was one of those affected by the TTPS’s inability to pay for the repair of their vehicles, said the affected businesses included those specialising in battery supplies, air-conditioning repairs, tyre replacement, alignment services, mechanical maintenance, body repair and painting.

“My company serviced between 50 to 60 vehicles per week, but about one month ago a decision was taken by garages to hold off on providing services to the TTPS alone,” said Ishmael.

He said some suppliers had already spent millions to stock items while he installed two new lifts in anticipation of continued business from the TTPS.

Ishmael denied that suppliers had been seeking profit off the TTPS. “What we charge the TTPS is what we charge other people. Five to ten per cent of the work we do for the police is free because this is how we give back.

Although the TTPS has outstanding debts stretching more than three years, Ishmael said they “continued doing the work and the TTPS understood this at the end of the day.” Ishmael claimed that with the TTPS severing ties with VMCOTT almost a year ago, they did not have anywhere else to get their vehicles repaired. But the situation has now become untenable for the private garages.

Ministry of Finance not paying

Ishmael said the Ministry of Finance was owing suppliers the outstanding monies.

In response to an email from Ishmael on November 4, Finance Minister Colm Imbert gave the assurance that a request for funds had been made and it was being processed.

In a follow-up email to Imbert on November 16, that also included Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and Griffith, Ishmael again outlined the concerns raised by garage owners and said more than 200 employees had been laid off from these affected businesses. He said some owners and operators were unable to pay salaries to their staff as there was little or no revenue being generated.

However, a month has gone, and Ishmael said they have not received any money. To ensure that garages do not continue to haemorrhage from these losses, Ishmael said: “The garages would have no choice but to litigate at the end of the day to get what is owed to us.”

He said garage owners are contemplating a silent protest in front of the Ministry of Finance if some form of payment is not made soon. Ishmael said affected garage owners could resume work if a “50-60 per cent good-faith payment is made.”

The TTPS received $2.28 billion in the 2020/2021 budget allocation.

Runaway crime

Ishmael said police-operated vehicles needed to be serviced regularly because of its continuous use.

Ishmael said: “With 50-60 per cent of the fleet down due to failed engines, they are now putting the balance of vehicles and those using them at risk, as it is over the stipulated service and repair period.”

In a shocking development, Ishmael said social media users reported last month that police officers were hosting a fund-raising BBQ to generate funds “to change oil and buy tyres for a police car.” He also described an incident in which police officers came to a victim’s house in Santa Cruz on foot following a robbery, since they did not have any vehicles at the police station.

He said the biggest concern now was runaway crime.

“The blood of our women and children are actually fertilising the soil of this country . . . and you telling me the most important thing is to look after our police service but instead, you are studying the San Fernando Wharf, the Tobago Airport and to rebuild the whole of Port-of-Spain and the TTPS don’t have money to keep running and our women and children are being killed?”

He warned that the “TTPS could fall flat” as they do not have the proper tools. He said if they fail to maintain the vehicles promptly, it could lead to hefty repair bills later.

VMCOTT: TTPS debt still stands

Almost eight years after receiving a mere $4 million payout from an $18 million debt, VMCOTT’s CEO said she was unsure when the remainder will be settled. But Prince remains optimistic.

“I know when they get their funds they will take care of VMCOTT,” she said

Prince said in 2018 VMCOTT refurbished 55 Nissan X-Trail vehicles for the TTPS and in 2019 they provided preventative maintenance and repaired approximately 80 Nissan X-Trails. However, they have not repaired or serviced any vehicles for the TTPS this year. Prince said she had written to the Government about the lack of business as they have been the bonafide company to service the X-Trails in the past.

She believes the $14 million debt is what prompted the TTPS to take their business elsewhere.

The loss of business from the TTPS has severely impacted VMCOTT’s operations according to Prince.

“It was a big blow, it was a big blow. However, we have been finding other innovative ways to survive. When we were doing the refurbishment we received an advance payment of $400,000 and we never received anything after that. The extent of the repairs and the refurbishment went to over $800,000,” she said.

Prince said while they have been accused of making errors on invoices in the past, the company has since rebranded and improved the service it provides.

She said while VMCOTT’s revenue streams have been dwindling during the COVID-19 pandemic, they managed to forge partnerships with private and commercial entities to remain afloat.

X-Trails repaired, waiting to be collected

Prince said VMCOTT has about eight X-Trails for the TTPS that have been repaired and are waiting to be collected.

“I have about eight X-Trails parked up here. They have been here since 2019 and they have already been refurbished.”

Asked why the TTPS had not collected the repaired vehicles, she responded, “I need money, my dear. You can’t collect the vehicles without paying me. Remember, I put out a lot of money. I am still owing suppliers for parts that I took and I am still paying suppliers as a result of that.”

Asked if VMCOTT would continue holding the vehicles until they received payment, Prince said, “I cannot say, I am holding the vehicles. But we were hoping while the TTPS left them here…it’s until they get their house in order and they organise the payment for us, then they could have taken them. But we still have some other stuff to be done on it too. So taking it just like that doesn’t make sense.”

The vehicles in VMCOTT’s possession still need to be outfitted with sensors, tyres, mirrors, and batteries, while the TTPS logo has to be painted on them.

It is estimated this could cost between $200,000 and $300,000.

Prince said VMCOTT has been operating in good faith by allowing the TTPS to use part of their Beetham Gardens compound to repair and service non-functional motorcycles.

The Chinese government donated 200 motorcycles to the TTPS in 2019.

Receiving pictures from social media users who have questioned why the TTPS had dozens of vehicles rusting away on a hilltop near VMCOTT’s San Fernando office for over four years, Prince said some of these vehicles can be serviced.

She said many felt the abandoned vehicles could be repaired and used in the fight against crime.

“People have been tagging me on Facebook saying another million-dollar taxpayers’ funded vehicles are rotting away. It could fix… but that would save money.”

Of this fleet, she estimated 30 per cent could be repaired.

However, she stressed, “This has nothing to do with me. We are not the owners of the fleet. They are not in our inventory to say we need to service them. I cannot account for that. I think the TTPS is taking them slowly and surely and earmarking them for minor repairs.”

BOXAuditor-General: No policy direction for fleet management

A 2010 special report prepared by the Auditor General on the Ministry of National Security’s Management and Maintenance of Vehicles in the TTPS stated: “Over the years there have been numerous complaints against the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service regarding their service delivery. The lack of functioning vehicles has been cited as a contributory factor to this situation. The police service is in the midst of a transformation process to address the issue of its effectiveness and to improve customer satisfaction.”

During the period 2006 to 2008, the report stated $86 million was spent on the acquisition of vehicles.

The report further stated that despite government investment, the police service continues to be hampered by a lack of mobility which manifests itself in public complaints about their”inability to respond in a timely manner.”

“A key problem with the management and maintenance of police vehicles has been the absence of strategic planning and policy direction at all levels in the fleet management process. This important area has been given low priority by the police service resulting in the failure to achieve value for money,” the report stated.

The report added that the “police service did not have a comprehensive policy in place which governed all aspects of their fleet management functions.”

It also outlined that the “police service vehicle acquisition was particularly affected by the lack of detailed policy guidelines. During the years 2000 to 2008, there were many changes in persons assigned to manage the vehicle fleet. This coupled with the lack of policy has resulted in a wide variety of vehicles being purchased for use.”

The report advised that not all vehicle types had been appropriate and suitable to the needs of the police given their unique requirements.

“As a result, at the time of our review, there were at least 24 different types of vehicles in the police service’s fleet.”

In 2006, the report revealed, a total of 178 vehicles were bought for $25 million, 99 vehicles were purchased in 2007 for $16 million, while 220 vehicles were obtained in 2008 for $45 million.

“We found that vehicle maintenance costs averaged $26.5 million per year over the period 2006 to 2008. Despite this investment, approximately half of the vehicle fleet was found to be non-operational during this period,” the report stated.

Questions sent to the TTPS:

1. What is the exact number of vehicles owned by the TTPS? Can you provide a breakdown of the types of vehicles and how they have been assigned to the various policing divisions?

2. Can you say which policing division has been the most affected by the lack of vehicles?

3. Can you provide an exact figure as to how many are currently operational? For those out of service, can you say how long they have been out and why?

4. In 2019, an audit of the TTPS’s fleet was ordered so that the status of each vehicle could be assessed. Can you provide an update on this and also indicate what else was found during the audit?

The questions were submitted to the TTPS’ Corporate Communications Department on December 10. Officials acknowledged receipt of the email and said it would have to be sent to the respective department to be answered. There was no time frame given for when the answers will be provided.