A day rarely goes by without some mayor declaring that his municipality should not be merged with another as part of the reform of local government. If we are to believe mayors and municipal councillors, none of the municipalities should be merged because they represent the devolution of central power and greater local democracy. Citizens need their municipalities, it is argued, without anyone ever explaining why these employment agencies posing as local authorities are needed by the citizens.
Is it because they put up Christmas decorations in the streets, collect the rubbish, build big town halls they do not need or organise the occasional event? All this talk about improving the quality of life of citizens is nothing more than hot air because municipalities have neither the powers nor the financial muscle to undertake major initiatives for the people they are supposed to serve. And the reason for this is that most of the funds they receive from the state plus those received for services provided just about cover payroll and pensions.
There are some municipalities in the tourist areas that have a surplus, as Ayia Napa mayor Yiannis Karousos keeps telling us in order to back his opposition to a merger, but generally most municipalities are not financially viable. Their merging – according to one press report the interior ministry was considering reducing them from 30 to 15 – would create substantial savings in staff and operating costs while also generating more revenue as the population of each municipality would increase.
This is straightforward economics. And it is a more economically rational solution than Karousos’ suggestion for the merging of municipal services while keeping the municipalities intact, presumably so the numbers of mayors and councillors would remain the same. This would be pointless if one of the objectives of the reform – more local democracy – is to be realised. A municipality must not only be economically viable but its mayor and council must have responsibility for all the services they provide and also be accountable. There will be local democracy only when a municipality becomes financially viable.
The interior ministry was absolutely right in pointing out on Tuesday that the priority was the “re-definition of the relationship between the central government and local authority and the diminishing of the dependence of municipalities on the central state, both administratively and economically.” The ministry announcement said the merging of municipalities was “not an end in itself, but a necessary measure for establishing real local government.”
Even 15 municipalities are too many given our population although a 50 per cent reduction in their number is certainly a big improvement as it will boost local democracy.