A small, supposedly uncomplicated project in Gozo – the embellishment of St Francis Square in Victoria – has been judged to have been mired in mismanagement and waste of public funds, with the final bill reaching more than double the amount originally budgeted, according to a recent audit by the National Audit Office.
Costs spiralled out of control, timeframes were completely ignored and procurement of public works remained undocumented, raising questions of the real whereabouts of taxpayer’s funds, the NAO’s report suggests.
Inaugurated in July 2020, by Prime Minister Robert Abela and Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri during a mega party dished out for all the minister’s constituents, the project was originally the brainchild of Labour’s first Gozo Minister Anton Refalo.
The NAO said that the project was announced in 2016 and was originally estimated to cost €1.5 million. It took four years, and a budget increase to €2 million, before it was inaugurated in July 2020. When the final bill came in, it amounted to €3.1 million, more than twice what was planned. Most of the works and procurement were carried out during the time when Justyne Caruana was Gozo minister.
The NAO noted that although the project was inaugurated, works were still not complete by the time of its audit, in November 2020.
“The execution of works in connection with the contract for the paving and embellishment works was to be finalised by end of June 2020. Subsequently, an addendum granted a two-month extension till end August 2020. However, this was only signed in October 2020 (four months after the contract was granted), following audit queries,” the NAO noted.
In its fundings, the NAO encountered many difficulties to understand how hundreds of thousands of euros in additional public funds were spent on this project, as no documents or trail were kept by key ministry officials.
The NAO noted that ‘retention money’ – part of the payment normally withheld as guarantee on the works done – was not kept by the ministry, contrary to the requirements of the contract. Instead, contractors were paid in full. It also highlighted its finding that an architect, who was supposed to be paid a maximum €5,900 for his work, ended up receiving €18,800 in payments, with no explanation for the substantial increase offered.
Also, the evaluation report on the main tender issued for the works had to be re-written three times.
“The initial two reports, drawn up following the evaluation of bids for the paving and embellishment works at St Francis Square, both quoted the cheapest offer incorrectly. As a result, the evaluation report was withdrawn two times and a third report was subsequently issued,” the NAO said.
The audit office noted that “the award of the two main contracts, having an aggregate value exceeding €2.5 million, was not published in the Government Gazette and evidence showing the publication of a direct order for mosaic works, amounting to €15,000 was also not provided for audit purposes”.
Minister Clint Camilleri, installed by Prime Minister Robert Abela in January 2020, then decided to spend hundreds of thousands of euros more to remove a fountain from the square and relace it with a large statue of St Francis – the protector of the poor.
After having spent this additional sum out of taxpayers’ funds, Camilleri then threw another party last summer, to commemorate the ‘event’.
No audit has been done so far on this second phase of the project.