Cyprus Mail

Move against local government reform will lead to ‘chaos’

Interior Minister Nicos Nouris

Interior Minister Nicos Nouris warned on Tuesday that allowing referendums on the mergers of municipalities and local communities would tank the drive to reform local government.

“It will be chaos,” Nouris told state broadcaster CyBC.

He was commenting on a last-minute move by opposition parties, which a day earlier tinkered with the government bills and inserted a provision for holding referendums in December 2023 to let residents decide whether they want their municipality or local community to fuse with one others.

Under the government plan, this year’s municipal elections would be cancelled, with the next ballot to be held in May 2024 under the new consolidated regime.

But the opposition parties introduced their own tweak, by which elections would take place as scheduled this December, and the next ones in May 2024 rather than December 2026.

It would be a one-off arrangement, as municipal elections are normally held every five years.

As for the proposed plebiscites on the question of the mergers, these would be held in December 2023 – five months before the full rollout of the new consolidated system.

Nouris said this made no sense on a practical level.

“Immediately after the passage of the bills, and as provided under the reform legislation, joint community councils are to be set up for the transitional phase. In other words, the mergers will begin immediately this year.

“And then lo and behold we arrive at December 2023 for people to decide via plebiscites. What happens if the people vote against the mergers? Because by that time the current law governing municipalities will have been abolished.”

That means, Nouris explained, that if an entity [municipality or village] should decide it doesn’t want to merge with another, then that entity would remain in legal limbo.

“Also, how will it go back to operating as a standalone entity when the procedures will already be in place for the merging of services and so forth? It would literally create a chaotic situation.”

Asked whether the government may now withdraw the reform bills altogether before they head to the House plenum, Nouris demurred: “We shall exhaust all avenues and continue dialoguing. We will strive to the last to have a reform of local government that is viable.”

He reiterated another risk to the reform drive falling through: Cyprus losing out on some €980 million in grants from the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility.

“One positive thing that did come out yesterday [Monday] was that the parliamentary parties endorsed the proposal for a single licensing authority – issuing both planning and building permits. It’s a major breakthrough and will be very useful to people,” Nouris said.

Asked about another major hurdle – disagreement on the number of municipal clusters under the new system – Nouris said a technocratic study recommended 14, but later through talks with stakeholders the government yielded somewhat and agreed to 17 as the ‘sweet spot’.

The ‘sweet spot’ relates to the population density of the mooted municipal clusters, the idea being to achieve economies of scale and bring down the cost of services.

“Look, today we have great inequalities among people on the local government level. For example a resident of Lefkara pays €523 a year for various services, while a resident of Mesa Yitonia in Limassol pays €114.

“So we want to build this model so that all people pay the same rate for water, the same fees, while getting quality services. And of course, it is high time that taxpayers stopped footing the bill for the malaise in local government.”

Nouris recalled that in 2017 the state stepped in to cover €17 million owed by municipalities to the water development department.

“And we did that with the expectation that we wouldn’t need to repeat it. But now, as of December 31 of last year, municipalities have accumulated a €7.8 million debt to the water development department. This will have to be paid by taxpayers again.”

For her part, Eleni Mavrou, of main opposition Akel who introduced the referendums proposal, insisted that residents should have a say in the process.

She denied that the whole endeavour might unravel if certain municipalities or villages vote against the mergers.

“Only last week the expert of the interior ministry told us that 19 municipalities are possible. And now adding one more, going up to 20, will destroy everything? I don’t think so.”

Marinos Mousiouttas, an MP with the Democratic Cooperation, said his party oppose the holding of plebiscites.

“If one municipality says no, then another will get the same idea in their head, and we’ll have a domino effect,” he said.

As a way out of the current quandary Mousiouttas suggested holding off on voting the bills, let the December municipal elections take place, after which the government would come back with reworked legislation.

“Or we could have the referendums right now. At least, if the plebiscites wreck the effort, we won’t have wasted two years only to wreck it at the last minute.”

Also on Tuesday, and in a sign that certain municipalities are uncomfortable with the mergers, Aradippou mayor Evangelos Evangelides voiced strong opposition to the proposed fusion of his municipality with Larnaca.

He said Aradippou is a financially robust municipality, more than capable of standing alone.

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