Tuesday, July 14, 2015

There's money in the quarry business

By Alfredo Garvida Jr.

The rush of construction activities in Ilocos Norte is defining the upsurge of commerce in this place, which uplifted in effect this province's economic state in the context of employment and taxation needs. Whereas on the employment side the impact is visible and notably felt in this province's residents, there is grave concerns on the taxes side however if the call of some influential members of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan to abolish the Provincial Quarry Council of Ilocos Norte on reasons of this office's ineffectiveness in timely processing quarry applications, alleging as well the prevalence of corruption, is substantiated.

SP member Joel Garcia has lately upped the ante on this issue with his allegation that the quarry fees due to the stakeholders, i.e., the province, municipalities, barangays, etc., have drastically and noticeably gone down since the creation of the Council, an assertion that seems to be fortifying the SP's original charge of ineffectiveness—and corruption—at the Council's end. 

This writer had the privilege of interviewing last month the Provincial Quarry Council, the agency created by Ilocos Norte Gov. Imee Marcos through Executive Order 238-14 on June 20, 2014 with the task of evaluating and approving applications for quarry permits and whose predecessor was the Task Force Quarry that was created on January 29, 2008. The council's early functional stage was marred however by disturbing allegations of irregularities attributed to the council's inspection team, headed by a certain “PJ”, which caused his summary relief allegedly upon orders of the governor. 

In that interview, Atty. Erme Labayog, the soft-spoken council chairman, and four other members—Ilocos Norte ABC Federated President Charles Tadena, PENRO Juan P. de los Reyes, Jr., Engr. Gaerlan and another unidentified member—explained that the allegation of slowness in the processing phase had to be the result of the council's newly instituted bar-code system, which means that contrary to what had been the previous practice in quarry permit applications, the documents could be hand-carried anymore by no one as the same will move along naturally until they reach the level for final resolution. De los Reyes explained that this new system will foster efficiency while it eliminates red tape—and therefore, corruption at all levels.

Tadena bewailed the allegation of corruption prevailing in the council by his colleagues at the SP as unfair and baseless. He asserted that the applicants would rather go through intermediaries or "fixers" than file their applications straight with the council, which otherwise would "totally eliminate bribery and ensure speedy processing of the application."

On the issue of the drastic decline in quarry fee collection, some knowledgeable people in the construction industry, on condition of anonymity, are attributing this situation to the, yes, slow processing of permit applications, under-declaration on delivery receipts and flagrant illegal quarrying activities in all towns, the latter two reasons attributable squarely to the ineffectiveness of the council's monitoring function.

Independent observers interviewed by this writer are bitterly complaining that the government appears not to be in possession of enough political will to rescue once and for all this death-bed state of the council's monitoring function given the fact that practically all the mayors of Ilocos Norte are the main contractors in public works projects in their respective jurisdictions. So, these observers were asking what "an unarmed monitoring team from the province would do to check proper delivery and illegal quarrying activity if confronted by goons of these powerful politician-contractors?" 

These observers were wondering as a consequence if it was time that "our strong-willed governor of Ilocos Norte get these mayor-contractors in line and subject them to a serious indoctrination of what moral values and adherence to law are all about."  After all, "Gov. Imee is feared and respected by her subordinate politicians in the province, reason why the monitoring function of the council should meet no impediment at the municipal levels when faithfully implemented."

A noted businessman in the province, on condition of anonymity likewise, suggested, which this writer fully supports, that one of the most effective ways to determine the correct gravel and sand delivery in the province is to get the district and provincial engineers involved directly in the monitoring function of the council by providing the data on consumed gravel and sand based on program of works submitted by contractors and/or project proponents to their respective offices on government projects. Further, city and municipal engineers should be required as well to provide data to the council, based on program of works likewise submitted to their respective offices on private constructions as well as their LGU-funded public works constructions. 

The Council, he asserted, should likewise require contractors to submit periodic reports to them on their actual gravel and sand consumption on a work-completed basis, complete with the name of the quarry provider, to be stored in a data base which, when reconciled with the program of works, will form as the basis for approximating how much gravel and sand must the quarry operator in that particular locality pay for in fees. Under this system, this businessman further opined, the quarry fees due the provincial, municipal and barangay governments are closer to reality since "the program of works cannot lie, as the quarry operators likewise won't be able to." 

This writer believes as well that in this system, the illegal quarry operators will be flushed out in the open given that the contractors are compelled to declare on their work-completed report where they had sourced their gravel and sand deliveries from. We believe further that this system will also serve as a counter check to the open-secret modus operandi of contractors to cheat on their material billings to the government.

This is a method that the council and the Sangguniang Panlalawigan of Ilocos Norte should take serious consideration of in view of the anomaly now prevailing in the collection aspect of the quarry fees. And given its mandate to upgrade the quarry system in the province, the council, this writer hopes, should adopt this method to preclude any further issues of inefficiency and corruption strewn at its doorsteps.

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