Israeli Poor Desert Towns Urge Rich Regional Councils to Share the Wealth

Dimona, Arad, Yeruham and Mitzpeh Ramon say they supply labor for regional council's industry, but Negev councils get all the property tax.

Feuds between richer and poorer Negev regional councils and municipalities have been heating up again in recent months. A key dispute is between Tamar Regional Council, the Negev's wealthiest regional council, having the Dead Sea Works, several Dead Sea hotels and kibbutzim under its jurisdiction, and Dimona Municipality, which is deep in the red.

Dimona is demanding that the Mishor Rotem industrial plants, which are under Tamar's jurisdiction and pay it their property tax (arnona ), come under the purview of Dimona, which supplies the plants many of their employees. Dimona has an annual budget of NIS 190 million with 40,000 residents, while Tamar has a budget of NIS 96 million - with only 1.350 residents.

Tel Arad - Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

"It is inconceivable that the children of Dimona residents who work at the Mishor Rotem industrial plants don't benefit from these plants' property taxes," says Dimona's Mayor Meir Cohen. "We cannot accept that a regional council control [vast territory] and not share the income with the nearby communities."

Cohen says the city has had to take out a loan of NIS 10 million every year to balance its NIS 190 million annual budget.

"A correct division of income would spare me the need to make drastic cuts in education, welfare and infrastructure," he says. "There is no reason Dimona, Yeruham, Arad and Mitzpe Rimon should have to ask for loans only because they do not have industrial areas that bring in millions. In Dimona a generation has grown up that is asking questions and is determined to go out and fight. This isn't a question of Sephardim versus Ashkenazim, but a question of justice."

Cohen accuses Tamar council head Dov Litvinoff of consistently opposing the transfer of any of its property tax income to nearby local authorities. Litvinoff rejects these accusations and argues that Dimona gets tax breaks to which the Tamar council is not entitled. "Dimona has a 20 percent tax break and Tamar, zero percent," he says. "And this, when the size of an average home in the Tamar council is 85 square meters and in Dimona, 140 square meters."

In 2005 the area of the nuclear research complex and adjacent industrial zone were transferred from Tamar to Dimona municipality, which Litvinoff says was worth NIS 7 million a year to Dimona. "Meir Cohen can demand of the state about NIS 15 million for the industrial zone but he continues to insist on 'distributive justice,'" he says. "This is instead of bringing new money into the Negev and fighting to have the Nevatim Air Force base in his jurisdiction, which could bring in NIS 36 million, instead of it being considered an unincorporated area that does not belong to any local authority."

Prof. Oren Yiftachel of the Geography and Urban Planning Department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has little sympathy for Litvinoff's claims. "This council is getting a lot more than it needs for the size of its population," Yiftachel said.

Meanwhile, Tamar council has come to an agreement with another struggling desert municipality, Arad, that gives all property tax income from new plants in the industrial zone to Arad Municipality until 2015. Thereafter, 80 percent of the income will go to Arad and 20 percent to Tamar. The agreement also says that from 2013, Tamar will pay NIS 4 million to Arad annually, even if the property tax income is less than that.

Moreover, the two sides agreed that boundary adjustments will be carried out on the eastern slopes of Arad, which face Masada, and rural tourism industry will be developed in the region. The two councils also agreed on the establishment of a joint soccer team. "This is a historic agreement that preserves Tamar's interests while building trust and cooperation with Arad and giving a real horizon to the city's development," says Litvinoff. "It was achieved in the wake of genuine dialogue and understanding of the needs of both the councils." The division of lands among the councils was carried out in the 1950s and has undergone several changes in recent years. However, most of the lands in the area of the Negev have remained in the hands of the regional councils.

Yiftachel says studies have shown a clear bias in favor of the veteran population at the time of the division of the lands. "Generous tracts were granted at that time to the regional councils, whereas they were stingy with lands for the development towns and the Arab locales," he says. "In the past there was even a certain logic to this, as the regional councils engaged mostly in agriculture."

Yeruham and Mitzpeh Ramon, too

Another hard-pressed local authority, Yeruham, is complaining of distributive injustice at the hands of Ramat Hanegev Regional Council. Yeruham local council is demanding from Ramat Hanegev the transfer of the planned Israel Defense Forces Training Base City and other assets that generate property taxes of NIS 50 million annually. Yeruham has a NIS 60 million annual budget with 10,000 residents, Ramat Hanegev a NIS 80 million yearly budget with 5,000 residents.

"This income goes to a council with a population smaller than ours and where the challenge to absorb immigration doesn't exist," says Yeruham Mayor Michael Biton. "There is no justification for Training Base City to remain in the jurisdiction of Ramat Negev, which has decreased the property taxes for the bases out of irrelevant considerations and contrary to the policy of the Interior Ministry," he adds. Biton says Yeruham is able to reach an agreement with Ramat Negev that would not require turning to the Interior Ministry to convene a boundaries committee.

Ramat Hanegev council head Shmulik Rifman, however, has suggested that Yeruham take its complaint to a boundaries committee. Ramat Negev is also the target of demands from still another strapped local authority, Mitzpeh Ramon, which is demanding the transfer of Ramon and Nafha prisons as well as Ramon military base. Mitzpeh Ramon Mayor Flora Shushan estimates that property tax income from these sites could reach MIS 30 million a year.

"Our budget," she says, "is NIS 52 million but we rely on the Interior Ministry. This is a historic injustice. Instead of being independent we are dependent on government budgets." The turf and property tax disputes are in the hands of Interior Minister Eli Yishai, and Shushan says that if he does not take a decision soon, her town will consider petitioning the High Court of Justice. Once again, Rifman has proposed that Mitzpeh Ramon take its case to an Interior Ministry boundaries committee.

Yiftachel says it is possible to find a solution that goes beyond transfers of lands from one council to another. "Changing the distribution does not need to be carried out through changing the boundaries," he says. "It's possible to divide the property taxes without transferring lands, by means of a more equitable distribution in accordance with the size of the council."

Rifman sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few months setting out the regional councils' position. "Rural settlement and the regional councils bear the responsibility for preserving agricultural and open lands as a bulwark against the unrestrained spread of suburbs," he wrote. "This is to preserve the environment, the green lungs and the production of food for the entire population." Rifman added in the letter that the struggle among the cities for urban land has been blown out of proportion.

"There isn't a competition here," he stressed. "We in the regional councils have aimed all along to find solutions to disputed issues. The request for a reallocation of the lands of the State of Israel, as well as its timing, rests mainly on slogans and statements, some of which are intentionally wrong and some of which amount to messages aimed at serving political motives and interests."

The Interior Ministry says Yishai is appointing a committee to examine the allocation of property tax income in the Negev, including in Mishor Rotem, the Nevatim base and a planned national intelligence complex. "The recommendations of the committees established regarding Mishor Rotem were not adopted by interior ministries in the past," the ministry noted.

"The current interior minister has decided to dispense with them and to establish a committee that will deal with all property tax issues in the Negev region. The aim is to provide a suitable solution to the needs of the various local authorities in the region and in accordance with their incomes, outlays and needs."