Chronicle of a Predictable Crisis

While other tribunals take a zero-tolerance approach to law enforcement, the labor court system favors compromise and dialogue. This is its strength and significance.

Good thing there's a National Labor Tribunal. Otherwise, we would still be wallowing in a strike. The two sides torpedoed Wednesday night's meeting, but waiting for them around the corner was the president of the labor court, Steve Adler, who has gained for himself the reputation of a swift and effective mediator. He brought them back to the negotiating table. While other tribunals take a zero-tolerance approach to law enforcement, the labor court system favors compromise and dialogue. This is its strength and significance.

The same thing happened two years ago, in a previous round of the same dispute about local authorities not paying wages on time. Then, too, the strike was justified and then, too, Adler was successful in getting the sides back to negotiations. But they did not take advantage of the opportunity then, did not go into the matter in detail, and did not solve the basic problems of local government. That is why we now find ourselves in another round of the same strike.

The problem of administration in the local governments is an old one. Bnei Brak, for example, had a good mayor a few years ago who managed to balance the budget. He even managed to clean up the city somewhat. But they did not like him. The rabbis were even angry because he dared to request that the synagogues, mikvehs, and places of religious study pay municipal property tax. To demand property tax from students of the Torah?, the rabbis chastised. Let him go get money from the government. Let him prove how strong he is there, not with us. And then elections were held and his opposers made sure he would lose and disappear from the political arena. He simply did not understand the rules of the game in local government.

The mayor who best played according to these rules was Shlomo Lahat, former mayor of Tel Aviv. His modus operandi was to wander from the budget. When he handed over the city to the new mayor, Roni Milo, he told him: "Don't listen to any treasurer. If you want to do something, you have to stray [beyond the budget]. He'll come later with the money."

There are heads of local councils who run their authorities without charging residents almost any municipal property tax. They collect about 10 or 20 percent of the potential revenues. Most of these are heads of Arab local councils who do not feel comfortable collecting money from heads of clans who canvassed for their election. Objective difficulties also face Arab local councils, whose socioeconomic standing is low, and who represent areas devoid of industrial zones, making it hard to find anyone from whom to collect high property taxes. But that is a fairly weak excuse, since the government already took these challenges into account when it gave them high balance grants.

And so we are back to the basic problem: a faulty administration.

There are heads of local councils who do not hesitate to waste public funds. They take on unnecessary workers, political cronies, and close and distant relatives. Sometimes the head of a local council spends money on pet projects or expensive festivities even if the coffers are dry. They have found a way to extort money from the state - holding the workers hostage.

The same head of a local council who pays suppliers and contractors on time dares not to pay his workers. He knows that he could exert pressure on decision-makers in Jerusalem that way. He knows that when their cries for help reach the skies, the time will come for a big strike, and then the finance minister will give in and the coffers will open up, new grants will arrive and he will be able to deviate from the budget to his heart's content, even if he has not collected property tax.

There are several possible solutions to this. The first is to oust the treasurers of local councils who stray from the budget and replace them with treasurers from the Finance Ministry. This way, it would no longer be possible to deviate from an approved budget, because the treasurer would not sign the check.

The second solution is to replace those local council heads who do not collect property tax and water fees with an appointed committee. And the third solution is to bring to trial heads of local authorities who fail to pay salaries on time and transfer pension funds to workers, and force them to pay for the theft from their own pockets.

Only three years ago, Avraham Poraz, who was then interior minister, presented a plan for reducing the number of local authorities from 266 to 150 to introduce some method to the madness and save billions of shekels. But the plan was not implemented because Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu were afraid of the reaction from the local council heads who have great influence in the Likud Central Committee. In the end, only 26 local authorities were unified, most of them very small ones.

There are local authorities today that represent a mere 1,500 residents and have a staff fit to run a metropolis. In addition to the council head, there is a bureau, there are assistants, drivers, a treasurer, a legal department, an architect and clerks to serve a population equivalent to a few high-rise buildings in Tel Aviv.

It appears that lack of efficiency and incompetent administration continue to be part and parcel of the local government system.