Nov 25, 2013

    Town councils and Aim game

    WHEN the latest town-council management report was released on Thursday, one word - Aim - came to mind immediately.

    The acronym for Action Information Management became the by-word for a long-running saga between the People's Action Party (PAP) and the Workers' Party (WP), which flared up after the release of the last town-council report in December.

    The controversy revolved around the sale of town-council management systems to the PAP-owned Aim, which the WP pointed to as a reason for its poor showing in the collection of service and conservancy charges (S&CC).

    An unfortunate outcome of the Aim saga has been that all such town-council reports since then will have political overtones attached to them. This is unfortunate, for there is still a relevance for the documents, which assign a grade in five categories to each town council - estate maintenance, estate cleanliness, corporate governance, lift performance, and S&CC management. Each town council is assigned a green (best), amber or red (worst) rating.

    The reports remain an important tool to spur town councils to keep doing better by their residents. This is evidenced by the 15 town councils having their best showing overall in the most recent report, the fifth since its inception in 2010.

    The reports' open and transparent grading criteria - keeping track of the average number of lift breakdowns for instance - helps to make clear which key performance areas town councils are doing less than satisfactorily in, and puts the onus on them to perform better.

    The collection of S&CC, which provide the bulk of funding for town councils to maintain their estates, is a category that is closely watched. It is in this area that the WP-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) seems to be faring consistently poorly in - its arrears management received a "red" band for the second consecutive time in the latest report.

    Poor management of arrears will have an impact on town councils' cash flow, and it is in their interest to ensure residents pay these on time. According to the Ministry of National Development's criteria, a "red" grade means that at least 5 per cent of households have S&CC overdue for three months or more, and the amount of cumulative S&CC overdue for three months or more is at least 50 per cent of the total S&CC that the town council collects monthly.

    AHPETC has acknowledged its shortcomings, and is taking a tougher stance than before with residents. For the first time, WP chairman Sylvia Lim revealed that enforcement measures have been stepped up, "including court prosecution where other measures have failed". She added that they are processing the cases in batches, and "improving the arrears situation is an ongoing process and will take time to effect".

    For the second straight year, AHPETC failed to submit audited financial statements in time to get a grading in the corporate-governance category.

    AHPETC, which was formed recently after Hougang Town Council was expanded following the WP's victories in Aljunied Group Representation Constituency in 2011 and Punggol East in January, can point to the fact that it is relatively young compared to other town councils.

    Understandably, it will need time to learn the ropes and establish operating procedures. But, in the interests of residents in these wards, that reasoning must end eventually, and the regular town-council reports will provide an impetus for this to happen sooner rather than later.

    This commentary first appeared on