There are a lot of good reasons for the municipalities of Bat Yam and Tel Aviv to merge, and as soon as possible. But none of them will be the reason the merger actually takes place, if and when it does. Interior ministers are generally loathe to merge local authorities, which are the ultimate source of patronage positions. There’s only one reason that the logical step of merging two adjacent cities will take place in the end: the economic collapse of one of them. And that’s what has happened to Bat Yam.
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A combination of factors, some related to the conduct of the municipality and some decidedly not, have led to Bat Yam being bankrupt for nearly a decade. In recent years it artificially balanced its books by selling properties it owned to real estate developers, a move that generated tens of millions of shekels in revenue annually. But the land has been depleted and both the city and the state have reached the moment of truth. It may be hoped that a decision is finally taken.
Ever since the appointment of the committee to evaluate the possible merger of the two cities, Bat Yam has strongly campaigned against unification with Tel Aviv, which supports the move. It’s an almost absurd position: a beggar refusing to link his bank accounts to those of a billionaire.
Bat Yam’s main argument is that if its 170,000 residents join Tel Aviv’s 430,000, the former will automatically become second-class residents and will not get the same level of budgets and investments that Tel Aviv invests in its original residents. But this argument does not hold water, for a number of reasons.
Even if the most pessimistic scenario plays out and Bat Yam residents turn into second-rate Tel Avivians, it will still be better than the situation now, with Bat Yam struggling to supply its people with even the most basic services. To illustrate, while Bat Yam allocated the ridiculous sum of 380,000 shekels ($99,100) to youth groups in the city in 2015, Tel Aviv budgeted 14 million shekels ($3.7 million). While sports were budgeted at 100,000 shekels in Bat Yam, Tel Avivians got 15 million shekels. Bat Yam managed to fund culture to the tune of 8.4 million in 2015, but its neighbor to the north spent 170 million shekels, and so on.
Second, the large number of residents, 170,000 people, who would constitute more than a quarter of the population of the merged city, is a population that no one seeking to be elected mayor or city council member can ignore. Third, Tel Aviv’s planning policies in recent years have directed considerable resources toward upgrading the infrastructure in the city’s southern part. It’s clear that it will take time before gaps between the two cities are reduced, but in the long term it will be a process that any Bat Yam resident could view as encouraging.
And what would Tel Aviv, Israel’s wealthiest city by far, gain from merging with a city in such deep debt? Here the answer is less clear. Mayor Ron Huldai, who may not even be around in 2018, will get another large coastal area under his jurisdiction, which he will certainly leverage into glittering commercial and hotel complexes, and perhaps a few towers for the wealthy a la Herbert Samuel. At the same time, he will get a lot of older buildings that are densely populated by people of a significantly lower socioeconomic level than what is the norm for Tel Aviv. The job of empowering these people with employment, education, leisure and cultural activities would be one of the greatest challenges he will ever face. From the social welfare aspect, though, it would also be the most important product of the entire process.