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Expert warns local government reform is a mess

If non-existent planning is not speedily rectified, the country faces the spectre of worsening rather than improved services of all sorts, from rubbish collection to water supply

Huge gaps in planning and a lack of robust participation by the interior ministry bode ill for Cyprus’ implementation of local government reform, a Berlin-based consultant said on Wednesday.

“The Cypriot state must play a game of catch-up now, to secure at the very least some basics for the restructuring process,” and time is running out, Charalambos Koutalakis, an independent researcher with experience of the matter in 28 countries told state broadcaster CyBC.

Koutalakis, who was commissioned in 2019 to carry out a study to determine the country’s administrative needs, had recommended a total of 30 mayors (including deputies) as the maximum required for the island’s one million-strong population. Previously a British and Italian study had reached the conclusion that five to ten mayors would have been sufficient to achieve the efficiency and savings the whole project hinges on as its raison d’être, the expert recalled.

Under the planned system, however, there are to be 20 mayors and 93 deputy mayors, as well as an elected ‘super mayor’ who will head each of five administrative district organisations, which are to oversee newly consolidated municipalities.

The mayors of ‘big’ municipalities will be on annual salaries of €77,000, the district heads, reportedly on €80,000 while the deputy mayors, between €717 and €2,987 per month. Total annual cost for the deputy mayors will be €2.3m.

“It is worth noting that Berlin, with a population of 4 million, is functioning fine with 12 mayors,” Koutalakis said.

The [multiple] layers of administrators are completely disproportionate for the size of the island, he noted.

But the bloated numbers of administrative heads of questionable utility and arguments over political meddling are at this moment a mere distraction from the crux of the matter, Koutalakis said.

State and public discussions need to stop spinning around this and instead focus on the gigantic technocratic task of actually carrying out a semi-successful-or at least not disastrous-restructure, the expert counselled.

“No preparation has been done and the ministry of interior is far too hands-off in their approach,” Koutalakis said. “In no EU state has the ministry merely taken a ‘supportive role’ [as outlined by the interior minister earlier this week] and expected the various mayors to sort out their reform process,” he noted.

The ministry should be robustly engaged in leading the restructure in terms of organising its financing (from resilience and recovery funds), designing and providing protocols and processes, and training; as well as hiring teams of technocrats (consultants if needed), to toll up their sleeves and proceed with the nitty-gritty of “who is needed, when/where, identifying gaps and what is the minimum acceptable service, how many people are needed to achieve this, and what it will cost,” Koutalakis advised.

If non-existent planning is not speedily rectified, the country faces the spectre of worsening rather than improved services of all sorts, from rubbish collection to water supply to sewerage, the expert warned.

“Speaking about ‘creating economies of scale’ is a much loftier discussion […] do you know how difficult and time-consuming it is to analyse in minute detail the operation of a garbage collection system? Especially for a larger, consolidated geographic area?” Even determining the payment system is a process that can take as long as two years, Koutalakis pointed out.

Another erroneous approach is to expect current mayors, who are busy with the requirements of their roles, to also conduct and oversee meetings to analyse the reordering of personnel and various services.

“Leaving aside the fact that your average municipal administrator has insufficient expertise in organisational restructures of this kind, they do not even have the time,” he said.

Time has been lost for no reason since the reform was voted in one-and-a-half years ago, and the state now needs to urgently focus on securing the basics. If this is not done, service provision may unravel, let alone succeed in becoming cheaper and better.

Perhaps adopting a “cut and paste” approach from other similar-sized countries is the way forward. It is not only Cyprus that has undertaken the process of local government reform, it is a Europe-wide phenomenon, he said.

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