The threat of a strike still hovers. Ofer Eini, Histadrut labor federation chair, is not impressed by the Finance Ministry's promise to transfer salaries by this evening. It has promised quick fixes in the past, but the salary withholding in the local authorities continues.
And yet, if the salaries were not paid, it would be a justified strike - it is inhumane to withhold wages for months and make people miserable.
But it is also just to move away from political correctness and shine the spotlight on the main problem: the Arab authorities. The list of salary withholders does include one Jewish local authority also, Migdal, but it is an exception. All the rest are Arab.
The problem with the Arab local authorities is that they do not collect arnona municipal taxes and water bills, and they employ too many workers - a proven recipe for bankruptcy. The average collection rate in Arab local authorities is 40 percent, whereas in Jewish local authorities, it is 80 percent. In Jdeida, the arnona collection rate is 16 percent, in Jules it is 20 percent, in Tuba it is 19 percent, in Jisr al-Zarka it is 18 percent, in Taibeh it is 18 percent, in Kseifa it is 8 percent, and in Arara it is 5 percent. These are just a few examples.
True, this is a poor population, but the Jerusalem municipality collects from Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem at a rate of 80 percent. Where there is a will, there is a way.
It should be noted also that the Interior Ministry's grants to local authorities are divided based on socio-economic factors; weaker local authorities receive more compensation. Therefore withholding salaries is a cynical result of negligent management by local authority heads.
As soon as a clan fields one of its own as a candidate for local council head, the candidate finds it unpleasant to impose burdens on his clan members. He doesn't collect arnona from them, and also hires a few to work in the local council. That is how deficits are created. In addition, there is large-scale illegal construction, for which it is impossible to collect improvement taxes, fees and arnona. On top of that, the Arab local councils don't have industrial zones (and that is the fault of the government) and therefore they don't receive arnona from businesses or factories.
In order to gain time, the interior and finance ministries occasionally present a "recovery plan." But this doesn't solve the problem. It is an infuriating fiction. The plan has three components: streamlining, a government grant and a commercial bank loan. But the streamlining doesn't happen. The local authority head may dismiss 100 workers (from the rival clan's previous administration), but after a while the revolving door starts turning and he hires 100 workers from his own clan. The commercial banks don't give these authorities loans, so only one component remains: the special government grant.
Interior Minister Roni Bar-On denies there are political considerations involved here. But if not, why is the proprietor - the Interior Ministry - not making order? After all, the interior minister can appoint a treasurer for every local authority that strays. He can also appoint a commission of inquiry that would depose local authority heads who do not pay wages.
He can even, along with Ehud Olmert and Abraham Hirchson, pass a law in the Knesset stipulating that a local authority head will personally pay a NIS 15,000 fine for each day he withholds a salary. That is the fine that workers committee chairmans pay for violating labor court orders. Histadrut chair Eini says that if such a law is legislated, "that day my fight against withheld salaries in the local authorities will end, because it will stop immediately."
If so, why are there no treasurers or dismissals, and why is there no legislation? It is because the local authority heads have a lot of political power. They determine to a large extent the voting patterns in their communities. They essentially serve as large-scale vote contractors during elections, and therefore bear significant political importance. This is why Olmert, Hirchson and Bar-On have not taken extreme measures to resolve the problem. They do not want to anger the local authority heads. Therefore, even if Bar-On manages to limit the dimensions of the problem, and even if this round ends without a strike, the problem has yet to be solved. The local authority heads are already preparing for the next round.
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