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Our View: Local govt reform must include financial independence

Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides

The Union of Municipalities is set to make many changes to the draft bill for the radical reform of local government that was sent to it by the interior ministry. A press report said that while most municipalities had welcomed Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides’ declaration about creating local government with real powers, many felt the bill did not go far enough in this direction.

The main complaint of mayors was that only the interior ministry was prepared to cede powers to local government, whereas many other ministries wanted to maintain the powers they had over local authorities. This should not come as a surprise given that the idea of a strong state with centralised powers is the only thing politicians and civil servants know.

Devolution of power is a very unpopular idea in Cyprus, which is why successive governments have ignored the EU-wide policy of ceding more powers to local authorities. EU thinking is that by giving local authorities more powers it ensures greater participation of citizens in the political process and helps establish the idea of representative democracy. It is much easier for citizens to influence decision-making at local level, especially as these decisions directly influence their lives.

This concept of local government was snubbed by the central state which had almost complete control over municipalities through the ministries and district offices but, most importantly, through control of funding. Central government decided how much money would go to each municipality, many of which were cash-strapped and heavily indebted because of the salaries and pensions they had to pay. In the end local government had little responsibility other than collecting rubbish and giving jobs to party clients.

Among the powers to be given to local government should be the ability to raise funds through the imposition of some form of taxation. The objective must be to give local authorities the ability to raise funds and not depend exclusively on central government’s charity. Only with some economic independence would a municipality have real powers. And if the mayor is wasting the money raised on hiring more people or unpopular initiatives he or she would be voted out of office. This is how real democracy should work.

Of course, this being Cyprus, some mayors are already talking about the establishment of municipal police as part of the reform. The first thing Cypriot politicians seem to think about is to create more public sector jobs instead of how to better serve citizens. If a municipality wants to have its own police it is free to do so as long as it does not expect the taxpayer beyond its boundaries to pay for it. With greater independence municipalities should also be expected to take full responsibility for their decisions, including picking up the bill.

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