By Poly Pantelides
DEBT-RIDDEN local authorities are looking to merge services, not cut down on the number of municipalities and communities, the head of the municipalities’ union said yesterday.
Asked to comment on a discussion in parliament’s watchdog committee this week that resurrected a conversation on whether Cyprus has too many local councils and municipalities, Alexis Galanos said the municipalities were already working with the government to cut down expenses, and they would continue doing so along agreed lines.
“The municipalities are following a path discussed with the government,” Galanos said.
Deputy auditor-general Kyriacos Kyriacou the House Watchdog Committee this week Cyprus could get by with just five municipalities whose expenses could then be rationalised and set back on a correct path.
Cyprus has 30 municipalities in the government-controlled areas and over 300 communities that are in their turn run by separate councils. Kyriacou said given Cyprus’ population, which is still under a million people, having that many municipalities and local councils was unnecessary and in the case of isolated communities unfeasible as they were increasingly unable to support they payroll or provide services to the public.
Municipalities have been getting away with overspending for years, but their state subsidy has been reduced over the last few years and amid a deep crisis in the banking sector, everyone – municipalities included – acknowledge the need to contain expenses.
Six new local authorities were created in the past few years burdening state finances even more because of the ensuing legal obligations to set up secretaries, engineers, cashiers, and the like.
In general, some 75 per cent of municipalities’ budget goes to salaries and pensions.
But even back in 2011, when the debt crisis started becoming increasingly obvious even to the oblivious, the municipalities’ union committee unanimously decided to increase mayors’ pensions with several municipalities enacting decrees to raise minimum monthly pension from €598 to €1,200 a month for serving one term and €1,500 for serving at least two terms. “In some cases the pension remuneration went beyond what the mayor received while in office,” the auditor-general said in her 2011 report.
It was the same report that deputies discussed this week and all were quick to agree with the recommendations for cutting down on the number of municipalities.
Interior minister Socrates Hasikos said in his statements to the press after the meeting ended that deputies have been discussing the same matter for years. However this would be deeply unpopular because it would entail a loss of authority for some, and a loss of jobs during a time of rising unemployment.
The government’s position was that services should be merged which is what a lot of municipalities are doing, Hasikos said. But he agreed that there had been years of rampant spending in the state and semi-state sector and the government could no longer allow this to carry on given its obligations to its international lenders.