SENIOR civil servants are usually the biggest opponents of change. They like keeping things as they are and often resist attempts by politicians to make changes. Under the circumstances it was a pleasant surprise to hear that assistant Auditor General, Kyriacos Kyriacou, told a House committee, earlier this week, that Cyprus should have no more than five municipalities. Only in this way would there be economies of scale and local government would be placed on a sound basis, said Kyriacou.
It was good to hear at least one person in a position of authority, expressing such a radical view, by Cyprus political standards. For ordinary people this was nothing more than a common sense view, a statement of the obvious. As Kyriakou said, we were a country of 800,000 and had 30 municipalities (plus nine occupied municipalities with their own mayors) and 370 community councils, all of which were funded by the central government. Only four had a population of more than 50,000, while 12 had fewer than 10,000 residents.
Another point, not mentioned by Kyriacou, was that 75 per cent of the budget of municipalities goes on paying salaries and pensions. And now that the state subsidy has been reduced, many local authorities are having difficulty paying staff wages at the end of each month. In effect municipalities have been used by the political parties, primarily for the employment of their supporters and as vehicles to provide public posts – mayors and councillors – for members that were not elected to parliament or missed out in the distribution SGO seats. To underline their recklessness, the parties created six new municipalities, in the middle of the recession in 2011.
It was therefore no surprise that no political party voiced agreement with Kyriacou’s views; a few deputies thought merging municipalities would be a good idea, but the wiser heads would not hear of it. Not even interior minister, Socratis Hasikos, usually, a rational and practical man, would not hear of mergers and the dismantling of municipalities. If deputies wanted such a thing to happen they could prepare legislation and impose it, he said, but he did not agree as such a move would mean loss of power for some and loss of jobs for many others.
Politicians are content for municipalities to merge services in order to save money, knowing that this was no solution even though it might slightly ease financial problems. Nobody has the political courage to support the only solution, which is the drastic reduction in the number of municipalities. It was the parties that created this absurdity of 39 municipalities, for their own needs, and there is no way they would kill it. Perhaps the troika could raise the issue, during next week’s visit.