By Evie Andreou
A new round of consultations with the municipalities and communities has begun aiming to reach a consensus on local government reforms in an attempt to reduce discussion time at parliamentary level, Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos said on Tuesday.
Speaking at the 32nd annual general meeting of the Union of Municipalities (UoM), in the presence of President Nicos Anastasiades, Hasikos said that local government must take the lead in taking self-regulating measures. “It must itself accept an effective mechanism for supervision and control, which will replace the existing one, which, admittedly, has proved to be ineffective,” Hasikos said.
The promoted reform, he added was aimed at the modernisation of local government “to adapt to the challenges of the new era”.
The cabinet in July approved a bill for the reform designed to cut administrative costs through a clustering of services on a district level and a reduction in the payroll. The bill does keep intact the number of municipalities and municipal councils – which stand at 39 including the nine occupied municipalities – but proposes slashing the number of councillors. Overhaul of local administration is a condition stemming from Cyprus’ bailout agreement with international creditors.
Local authorities however, especially the Limassol district mayors, had disagreed with proposed provisions, thus delaying the tabling of the bill to parliament for a vote. They had said that the bill did not reform, but rather deregulated local and regional growth. They also believe that municipalities would lose jurisdiction and that the reforms did not decentralise the system but rather concentrated all power on a district level.
A new round of consultations has begun, Hasikos said. The aim, he said, is to reach “the greatest possible consensus, so that when we open the debate in the House we will have already achieved between us the maximum possible convergences and common positions”.
He said the government “would tend a listening ear to the views submitted”.
He added that local authorities should be able to exploit the possibilities offered and be able to draw funding from EU structural funds by submitting appropriate programmes, the implementation of which will also lead to the expected improvement in the lives of citizens.
Based on the complexity of the projects local authorities are now required to manage, he said, and the scale of economic and other aspects with which these projects are intertwined, it is imperative all rules apply relating to good governance, transparency, accountability, effectiveness and fair and equitable governance.
He added that along with the upgrading of the services offered at the lowest possible cost to the citizen, “another top priority is to institutionalise procedures for closer scrutiny, so the taxpayer knows, exactly, where, how and through which transparent procedures money was utilised”.
Head of the UoM Alexis Galanos said that the reform needs to take place without any delays. “Local clusters will merge existing services and at the end of a transition period, there might be merging of municipalities,” Galanos said. He said that as regards the issues that remain open for discussion was the election system of these clusters, the application of the reform programme and of the consequent changes, and the municipalities’ finances.
“Regardless of administrative expenses, which are 80 per cent of the municipalities’ budgets, the reality is that today some municipalities are at the brink of bankruptcy,” Galanos said.
Municipalities, he said, must be given the chance to have their own proceeds and control directly resources that include development funds. So far, he said, it was discussed collecting the immovable property tax and other taxes, but a proposal on behalf of the government is expected, which will restore funding at levels that “allow the functional viability of the municipalities,” he said.