POSTSCRIPT / March 9, 2004 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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What free use? Comelec paid P850M for ACMs!

THEY ARE PAID FOR!: It is sneaky — and dishonest– for the Commission on Elections to say that the automated ballot-counting machines of a so-called Mega Pacific consortium will be lent to the poll body for free.

The plain truth is that the Comelec has already paid around P850 million for those ACMs, almost 2,000 of them, under a contract that the Supreme Court has declared illegal.

If Comelec commissioners and their suki in Mega Pacific want to pass off as “for free” their using the same ACMs in the May elections, the poll body must first return the equipment and get back the P850 million — so they can restart with a clean slate.

If Mega Pacific is not taking back the equipment and returning the money, it is not being honest in saying that use of the equipment would be for free.

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CONNIVANCE?: What has blinded Comelec commissioners from seeing this obvious attempt to pull a fast one on the poll body? Why are they actively conniving with Mega Pacific in salvaging the lost deal?

Whatever it is, Vice President Tito Guingona has served notice that he would ask the court to cite them for contempt if they went ahead in using the equipment in disregard of the court’s voiding the contract and ordering the prosecution of guilty parties.

Looking for justification for what it plans to do, the Comelec has cited an old joint resolution of Congress allowing selective automation in the counting of the ballots.

But Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan pointed out that the resolution was passed before the Supreme Court nullified the Comelec-Mega Pacific contract.

“Using the said resolution as basis to use the machine already delivered by Mega Pacific and declared void by the Supreme Court is of questionable legality,” the senator said.

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UNUSUAL INTEREST: Comelec commissioners are showing unusual interest in salvaging the deal with Mega Pacific. The normal reaction of officials without pecuniary interest would be to return the equipment and get back the money paid.

Sure, there is a law mandating the computerization of elections. But this has to be done in accordance with law.

If both parties want to push another transaction after the failed deal, the second one must be clearly different and separate from the questioned first transaction.

In the present plan to lend the ACM “for free” to the Comelec, the parties are the same and they are talking of exactly the same equipment intended to be used for the same purpose.

The intended second transaction (leasing the ACMs for free) is clearly just a continuation or a rehash of the first. It stinks of bad faith.

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Q.C. TRANSFORMATION: The transformation of Quezon City from a sleepy suburban area into the premier local government unit under Mayor Sonny Belmonte has caught the eye of the Makati Business Club.

In a recent issue of Philippine Business magazine published by the MBC, author Delma L. Peyra reported that “improved revenues due to sound fiscal measures have given Quezon City leverage to take on social services and developmental challenges.”

Excerpts from Peyra: “Quezon City, home to one out of five of Metro Manila’s teeming 10 million people, is the country’s richest city according to the Commission on Audit. In 2002, tax collections, on account of the local government’s successful revenue-generating strategy reached P5.43 billion, up 49 percent from the previous year’s P3.64 billion.

“Like the national government, the priority for a city as big as Quezon City — the Metro’s biggest both in terms of population and land area, and the country’s second largest next to Davao City — is to put its finances in order.

“Under the administration of incumbent Mayor Feliciano Belmonte, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, revenues soared, in large measure to improved tax collections. This would not have happened had the local government not thought of creative ways of making taxpayers feel they are valued.

“Paying taxes to city hall conjure images of slow, sweaty, vertigo-inducing efforts at lining up to pay one’s dues. But in Quezon City, taxpayers are, well, pampered. At an air-conditioned taxpayers’ lounge, free coffee and iced tea are served.”

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EFFICIENT SERVICE: Peyra continued: “But this is just icing on a very well-prepared cake. For one, Quezon City is the first local government with a computerized real estate assessment and payment system. City Hall developed a database system that now contains around 400,000 property units with capability to record payments.

“An indicator that computerization works is that even with about 20,000 taxpayers that came in hordes to City Hall to beat a deadline during a peak day of the tax season in 2003, the system processed 13,200 collection payments and 7,813 assessment applications all in a single day. On March 31, 2003, Quezon City earned almost P200 million, a record one-day tax collection revenue.

“Without increasing rates, the city’s real estate tax collections — its number two source of revenues — soared 53 percent to P848 million in 2002 from P553.4 million in 2001. The local government’s approach was to encourage taxpayers to pay their dues in advance by offering discounts. Conversely, those who have not been paying their taxes diligently over the years faced the consequence of their properties being sold in auction.

“For those sectors that include manufacturers, retailers, high-tech companies faced with increased tax rates (business taxes in Quezon City before Belmonte’s administration were the lowest in Metro Manila), City Hall has sweetened the bitter pill by offering discounts or deferment of tax payment in exchange of voluntary declaration, for example in the case of those with companies with undeclared machinery.

“Priority on revenue-generation underscores the effort of cities like Quezon City to be independent from the national government in raising money and financing its operations. Internal revenue allotment in Metro’s biggest city now ranks just third among its sources of income, next to business taxes and real estate taxes.”

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NOLI WHITE PAPER: When radio-TV newsreader Noli de Castro ran for the Senate in 2001, not a few members of media (who know one another’s secrets) were shaking their heads.

Not only were they not impressed by Noli’s qualification and preparation for the exacting job of lawmaking. They were also disturbed by the recurring talk of his allegedly using his TV shows for big-time extortion.

But most media people are not comfortable writing about fellow mediamen’s indiscretions, so none of the alleged scandals saw print. Besides, in fairness to Noli, although the air was rife with extortion stories about him, nobody ever came forward with proof.

And he played it well by not reacting to the White Papers on him circulating in coffee shops, offices, the Congress and even in cyberspace. Answering back would have fanned the stories.

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EXTORTION RAPS:But it seems now that Noli — a senator and vice presidential candidate — can no longer avoid coming out to answer specific extortion and blackmail charges filed against him.

Six officers of the Bagong Lahing Filipino Development Foundation Inc. detailed their charges in an affidavit filed with the Ombudsman. The alleged extortion happened in January to February 2002, when Noli was already a senator.

The BLDFI officers, led by national director Andres Gonzalez, said they were approached three times in January 2002 by Noli’s representative. The man allegedly invited them to affiliate their group with Noli’s Kabayan Foundation.

They claimed that Noli had asked for P3.5 million for the affiliation, after which their program would allegedly be promoted in Noli’s program, “Magandang Gabi Bayan,” on Channel 2 and DZMM radio.

They said their turning down the proposal resulted in Noli’s attacking their foundation in his MGB broadcast on Feb. 2, 2002.

They said they were encouraged to file their complaint after reading on the Internet at similar complaints against the broadcaster.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 9, 2004)

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