Monday, 23 April 2012

MP wants more time to pay for Potong Pasir lift upgrading

Sitoh Yih Pin asks ministry if town council can repay the $8.7m it owes over nine years
By Teo Wan Gek, The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2012

WHEN lift upgrading finally arrived at Potong Pasir's doorstep, it ended a long wait for many of its residents. But when the time came to pay the bill, the town council found itself asking for more time.

Newly elected MP Sitoh Yih Pin is asking for nine years to repay the $8.7 million that the town council owes to the Ministry of National Development (MND) for the Lift Upgrading Programme (LUP) to be done in 48 blocks, instead of the 2014 deadline.

He needs the extension because the town council does not have enough in its residential sinking fund: According to its annual report, as of March 31 last year, the Potong Pasir Town Council had $4.4 million.

Said Mr Sitoh: 'This is not enough to cover the cost of the 48 blocks that have been identified for the LUP, which will amount to $8.7 million.'

The MP has asked for an instalment plan spanning nine years, which will require him to pay extra interest. When contacted, the MND confirmed that it had received Mr Sitoh's proposal, and added that it was working with the Housing Board and the town council on its request.

The LUP, which retrofits lifts so they stop at every floor, had long been dangled by both the People's Action Party (PAP) and the opposition as a carrot in their battle for the single-seat ward. It was first announced for Potong Pasir in 2009.

Of the 48 blocks that have been identified to undergo the LUP, the first batch of nine blocks will be completed by this year. The rest are slated to be completed by 2014, the national deadline for all eligible blocks to have lifts that stop on every floor.

Lift upgrading is heavily subsidised by the Government, with residents and town councils each paying between 5 per cent and 12.5 per cent of the cost. The MND usually requires town councils to pay for their share of the lift replacement cost in two parts - the first half at the start of the works, and the remaining amount when they are done, usually two to three years later.

Like others, town councils are funded by service and conservancy charges, as well as an operating grant from the Government based on the number of HDB flats and flat types in the town.

PAP's single-seat constituencies typically combine their town councils with that of a neighbouring GRC, so that they can reduce operating costs through economies of scale.

But Mr Sitoh had taken the unusual move of going it alone after he won the seat at last year's polls. The town council was previously headed by former MP Chiam See Tong.

In May last year, he told The Straits Times that he would take a year to better understand the town council's finances, workings and service standards, before deciding whether he should merge it with that of either neighbouring Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC or Moulmein-Kallang GRC.

A check of tender documents by The Straits Times yesterday found that the town council has called for a tender for a new managing agent, indicating that the MP has stuck to his earlier decision.

Mr Sitoh explained that he wanted to retain control of the town council so that he could solve its financial problems better.

'We are in a unique situation, where we are financially weak and very small. Every penny counts. I must manage every penny myself,' he said. 'This is my problem, and I will solve it. It is best we chart our own destiny and manage our own future.'

Even if Potong Pasir Town Council were to merge with another, he added, its debt of $8.7 million will not be absorbed into the larger entity.

Nevertheless, Mr Sitoh intends to hold joint contract tenders with Moulmein-Kallang's town council, so that he can still enjoy economies of scale.

'Hopefully this will result in some cost savings, so we can pay back bit by bit,' he said.

But he took pains to stress that he would carry out all the promises he made to residents during the general election campaign regarding plans for the estate.

He said he had considered an option to delay some cyclical maintenance such as rewiring and re-roofing, which would cost more than $3 million, so that he could repay the MND for the lift upgrading more quickly. But, he added, he scrapped the idea as the constituency has not done any major rewiring in the past 26 years.

Potong Pasir resident Anita Wong said she was glad Mr Sitoh decided not to delay the maintenance. Said the 50-year-old teacher: 'It's an important job to do, and it is long overdue. We should go back to basics first, then move on from there.'

Tutor Janelle Tan, 29, who has lived in Potong Pasir for more than 20 years, said: 'Mr Chiam managed the town council as best as he could. I'm not worried about the lack of money; Mr Sitoh will be able to figure a way out.'

Chiam: No shortage of town council funds
He rebuts MP's claim of lack of funds for lifts but Sitoh stands his ground
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 25 Apr 2012

FORMER Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong yesterday rebutted a statement by MP Sitoh Yih Pin that there is a shortage of funds for lift upgrading in the estate.

He said the job would have been done 'without any hassle' if he was heading the constituency's town council.

He also pointed out that the council had a total of $6.7 million in residential property funds as of March 31 last year (2011), comprising $4.4 million in the residential sinking fund and $2.3 million in accumulated surplus.

In fact, it previously had enough funds to build 29 lifts in Toa Payoh Lorong 8 without asking residents to co-pay, he said in a statement yesterday.

Mr Sitoh had said over the weekend that the shortage of funds, inherited from Mr Chiam after last year's general election, was the reason he had asked for extra time to settle the bill for the estate's lift upgrading.

When contacted yesterday, Mr Sitoh stood his ground.

'If Mr Chiam insists he can pay for the lift upgrading as well as do all the necessary maintenance for this estate, please show me the instalment plan,' he said.

Rewiring and re-roofing projects alone will need about $3.5 million, he added.

Last month, Mr Sitoh had asked the Ministry of National Development (MND) to let Potong Pasir pay its lift upgrading bill over the next nine years, as the town council did not have enough funds to foot the $8.7 million bill by 2014.

But Mr Chiam, leader of the opposition Singapore People's Party, argued that he would have had four years, from 2010, to accumulate the required sum.

'I can categorically state that my town council and I would have executed the lift upgrading project without any hassle. We had a clear financial plan and were reserving funds even from our operating accounts,' he said.

Mr Chiam also rebutted Mr Sitoh's assertion that no rewiring of homes had been done in the past two decades. Homes in Toa Payoh Lorong 8 had been rewired, he said.

His town council also did various improvement works in the constituency 'without a single cent' from Community Improvement Projects Committee (CIPC) funds. Mr Chiam said all his applications for these funds was rejected, except for a barrier-free accessibility project.

The CIPC funds are disbursed by MND but any application for them needs the grassroots adviser's endorsement.

Mr Sitoh was the adviser when Potong Pasir was in the hands of Mr Chiam, who was its MP for 27 years (1984 to last year).

Yesterday, Mr Sitoh clarified the rewiring issue, saying he was referring only to the 40 or so blocks in the Potong Pasir housing estate.

He also said he did not stonewall Mr Chiam on CIPC funding.

Mr Chiam had asked for his endorsement once in 2002 and another time in 2007. Both were for building covered linkways throughout the constituency. He gave his support both times, but MND turned them down, he said.

He has since asked the ministry to fund further upgrading of Potong Pasir's flats and neighbourhood facilities, under the Home Improvement Programme and Neighbourhood Renewal Programme.

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