Bacolod City

Bacolod City truth body to probe P1.5-B infrastructure, pandemic transactions

Inday Espina-Varona
Bacolod City truth body to probe P1.5-B  infrastructure, pandemic transactions

HEALTH EMERGENCY. Bacolod City residents seek help at the local government's Respiratory Center at the height of the September 2021 COVID-19 surge due to the Delta sub-variant. The city has defended its cash advances for pandemic expenses citing urgent needs of frontline agencies.

City Emergency Operations Center

The city's Bids and Awards Committee defends the cash advances for urgent COVID-19 pandemic procurements, citing frantic appeals by health frontline agencies

Two days before Bacolod City Mayor-elect Albee Benitez takes over Negros Occidental’s premier city, his hand-picked officials announced a probe into more than P1.5 billion in 2017-2020 expenditures of the outgoing administration of Mayor Evelio “Bing” Leonanrdia.

Benitez’s spokesperson, Lyzander “Bong” Dilag, incoming city administrator Pacifico Maghari III., legal officer Romeo Carlos Ting Jr., and secretary to the mayor Karol Joseph Chio held a press briefing on Tuesday, June 28, giving a rundown of the potential probe subjects. The questionable transactions, they said, can be found in COA reports.

Benitez will sign an executive order on July 1 to launch his truth commission but he has already announced Ting as its head and Maghari as a member.

The mayor-elect earlier told Rappler he would include former state auditors in the commission. The press briefing presented former COA central office state auditor Marilou Reyes as a resource person, but it was not clear if she would eventually sit in the new body.

Among the items mentioned by Dilag were 

  • P1 billion in “construction in progress accounts”, including the lack of supporting documents for P506 million paid to landfill and sanitation service providers. 
  • P183.9 million in cash advances to officers and employees handling the city’s pandemic response, 
  • cash procurement of P38.57 million worth of various medical supplies and medical equipment, P112.1 million in various equipment not entered into the city’s trust fund books, and
  • P49 million in grants to non-governmental organizations,

Rappler’s review of the 2020 COA report on the city, transmitted to the LGU in June 2021, found that officials had already started correcting some deficiencies from when the country experienced the first wave of illness and deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reyes, the former state auditor, also pointed out that some transactions flagged by COA may have been corrected already, whether partially or fully. 

“But based on the action on prior years’ audit recommendations, there are still a lot of things for the period covered that have remained unimplemented,” she said. 

The COA review said that as of December 31, 2020, P170.47 million of P171.8 million in audit suspensions have been outstanding for one to seven years.

“There are some which have been partially implemented and there are those, of course, which have already been addressed. These are the things the commission would have to look into,” Reyes noted.

In 2019, the COA also questioned the lack of data on the P71.9-million contract for the management and operation of the city’s sanitary landfill and almost P165 million for the collecting, hauling, and disposal of trash. It also called for the demolition of temporary structures within the sanitary landfill facility.

But in 2020, the COA also finally lifted its Notice of Disallowance on the alleged overpriced purchase in 2008 of a seven-hectare sanitary landfill area.

Emergency procurements

In its review of the P183.9-million pandemic cash advances, the COA said personnel of the city accountant office revealed that “there was no proper monitoring of COVID-related cash advances because of the heavy workload and volume of transactions” and the quarantine status that all LGUs experienced.

The audit report, however, said that subsequent interviews with accountable officers found they are now in the process of collecting supporting documents to completely liquidate their cash advances. Of these, P71.9 million was sourced from the city’s trust fund and P111.9 million from the general fund.

The COA also mentioned emergency purchases of P38.57 million worth of medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPEs), which it said violated COA Circular 97-002 and Department of Budget and Management local budget circular No 125 dated April 7, 2020.

The COA questioned why the city simply negotiated with suppliers who could submit and offer the lowest price for the goods when procedures had already been relaxed to allow for the health emergency. It also reminded the city that rules require all disbursements must be paid in check “except in instances when it may be difficult or impossible”.

The Bids and Awards Committee secretariat, however, defended their action, citing rapid depletion of equipment and other material needed by frontliners.

“There was hardly any supply at end-user offices except for what DOH (Department of Health) periodically provided,” the BAC said.

The BAC response said the committee was preparing to undertake “myriad procedures for negotiated emergency purchases”, when end-user officers “frantically alerted” that they were already running very low on pandemic management supplies.

The problem, the BAC said, worsened when the national government began sending home boat and plane loads of overseas Filipino workers, who all needed testing and isolation.

Cash on delivery was the only payment system that the market was willing to accept, BAC said. “We had to accede, otherwise, we would not have secured the essential supplies we badly needed at that time.”

The COA report also quoted the city accountant office as saying missing accounts for disaster equipment had already been booked in the general fund. The state agency, however, ordered that accounts first be recorded in trust fund books before transferring the account to the general fund. –

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