[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo confers with Public Works Secretary Hermogenes Ebdane Jr. and MMDA Chairman Bayani Fernando as workers dismantle one of the ‘hazardous’ billboards along EDSA in Pasay City yesterday. Photo by WILLY PEREZ]

MANILA, OCTOBER 10, 2006 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - After the "killer" billboards, President Arroyo wants authorities to immediately remove squatters and illegal structures near esteros, creeks and rivers to prevent flooding during the rainy season.

Public Works and Highways Secretary Hermogenes Ebdane said dismantling the hazardous billboards was actually the easiest task so far in solving problems during heavy rains.

"The real challenge is how to clear esteros, creeks and rivers. And I have talked with the President about this. We have to do it now," Ebdane said. "It’s high time we work on this. We cannot work piecemeal, we are working on these billboards and yet we have the bigger problem of flooding. So we will do the research because there are some laws that deal with this."

Metro Manila Development Authority Chairman Bayani Fernando admitted the task is "easier said than done," but hopefully the long-time problem can be now addressed.

The national government and local officials have recently been criticized for the lack of political will to relocate squatters especially since they are the major source of votes during elections.

The program to relocate the squatters has been ongoing, but has shown very little progress based on recent reports.

However, Ebdane said the President is dead serious in cleaning up the metropolis and the rest of the country.

"What we will do is check the old maps, establish the original river and creek lines and open them. Those that are found impeding the flow of water, including fishponds, will have to be demolished," Ebdane said.

While it would take only two months to dismantle all billboards that pose as danger to motorists and pedestrians, Ebdane and Fernando said the clearing of waterways would take a long time.

Mrs. Arroyo dropped by at the corner of EDSA and Taft Avenue yesterday to check on the dismantling of billboards in Pasay City. She earlier issued Administrative Order 160 that paved the way for the removal of hazardous billboards in the aftermath of Typhoon Milenyo.

A total of 2,161 billboards along major thoroughfares have been assessed, of which 90 percent would have to be taken down, Ebdane said.

The DPWH said 42 have been dismantled and 18 were being taken down as of yesterday.

Ebdane expressed his gratitude to all sectors that have cooperated as far as the issue of dismantling billboards is concerned.

He said a lot more help, especially from local executives, would be needed to clear esteros and creeks.

"We have a flood control office and we will also seek the cooperation of the local executives and the MMDA because the task will be huge," he said. "We hope we can implement this soon and complete it before the next rainy season."

Meanwhile, over 50 billboards in Muntinlupa City are now the subject of an evaluation being conducted by the local government in coordination with the DPWH.

Carlito Salomon, of the Muntinlupa building office, said an evaluation was initiated even as they await the release of the final implementing rules and guidelines covering construction of new billboards as well as the existing ones in the city.

In the absence of guidelines, Muntinlupa Mayor Jaime Fresnedi ordered Salomon to monitor billboards and disallow unfurling of tarpaulins, which he said may pose risks in case another typhoon hits the Metro Manila area.

Salomon said Malacañang issued Administrative Order 160, which directs the DPWH to hold field inspections, evaluations and assessments of all billboards and determine those that are hazardous and pose imminent danger to life, health, safety and property of the general public.

Local officials said if billboards in the city do not comply with the standards set by the DPWH, they will have to be dismantled.

However, the implementing rules for proper construction of billboards and those governing existing ones, were not indicated in the directive. They added that the National Building Code of the Philippines is not specific regarding the specifications of billboard structures.

Salomon said DPWH officials, in partnership with city engineers, would be conducting an inspection of all billboards located along the stretch of the highway from Barangay Tunasan to Sucat anytime soon.

He said the city government has ordered suspension of the operations of 50 billboards to prevent accidents or deaths since six more typhoons are scheduled to hit the country based on data from the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration.

Salomon added that the city government has already inspected billboards damaged by the recent typhoon.

"These billboards should have been able to withstand winds of 200 kilometers per hour based on the National Structural Code of the Philippines," he pointed out.

He said they expect the new guidelines from the DPWH to set the maximum height and size of billboards as well as the proper right materials to be used in its construction. — With Rhodina Villanueva

RSBS funds dropped by over P4 billion in past 7 years By James Mananghaya The Philippine Star 10/10/2006

The controversial military retirement and pension fund, which is about to be dismantled, lost over P4 billion in the past seven years while its net income plunged 94 percent from 2004 to 2005.

Data from the Retirement and Separation Benefits System (RSBS), which was released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Public Information Office, showed that its unaudited net profit in 2005 was only P14.16 million, which is way below the P223.98 million profits posted the previous year.

Similarly, its total assets dwindled by almost P4 billion over a period of eight years from P15.89 billion in 1997 to P11.62 billion in 2005.

RSBS suffered net losses of P759.89 million in 1998, P994.52 million in 1999, and P416.16 million in 2000, following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which resulted in the depreciation of its real estate properties.

But in 2001, RSBS posted a net income of P38.9 million. It also subsequently recovered from 2001 to 2004 and posted a net income of P106.86 million in 2002, P127.75 million in 2003, and P223.98 million in 2004.

RSBS has mostly invested its funds, which is pegged at almost P9.6 billion, in real estate. It still has collectibles of up to P1 billion from unpaid loans.

The military and the Department of National Defense (DND) has announced that RSBS will be closed effective Dec. 31 and will be replaced by a civilian-run pension fund.

Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz said that RSBS’ idle real estate assets, worth close to P10 billion, would also be liquidated.

Proceeds from the sale of the properties and shares of stocks in real estate firms, plus member contributions, would be deposited in a trust fund in two government banks – the Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP) and the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP).

The RSBS was established as a private entity in 1973, with a P200-million seed money to provide pension for soldiers. It deducts five percent from the monthly base pay of soldiers, which will be returned to them with six percent interest, upon retirement.

Due to bad investments, the company has been forced to source the money for soldiers’ pension, which amounts to P10.6 billion annually, from the national budget.

RSBS officials assured the public last Friday that they have continuously released members’ contributions, plus the six percent interest, to beneficiaries. RSBS has been releasing P5 million a day to pay the pensions of retired soldiers.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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