Local Gov’ts in Israel Threaten Strike on First Day of School Over Budget Cuts

Mayors are irate over cuts in teaching hours, reallocation of property taxes and plans to shut down slot machines.

Alon Ron

The Union of Local Authorities on Wednesday called a strike in schools and local governments on August 31st, the first day of the new school year, in protest at cuts contained in the upcoming budget.

The heads of the union – an umbrella organization for local government officials – said at a news conference on Wednesday that cutbacks announced by the treasury will directly impinge on all Israelis by harming education, welfare, culture, security, housing and other services.

One of their main objections is to the treasury’s plan to slash teaching hours in high schools whose students come from a high socio-economic environment in favor of schools whose students are from lower socio-economic environments.

The mayors said the government must first fulfill its obligation to set a minimal budget for every student and only then attempt to cut school budgets without harming the students.

They also object to the treasury’s plans to redistribute the property taxes paid by government offices and prohibit slot machines run by the national lottery.

Mayors of the wealthier cities object to distributing welfare and education budgets differentially, claiming it will harm the wealthier local governments in order to help poorer ones.

Most of the mayors at the press conference were from wealthier cities, including the mayors of Tel Aviv, Netanya, Be’er Sheva, Rishon Letzion and Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut.

The mayors said closing down the lottery’s slot machines would reduce income earmarked for building schools and sports facilities. They stressed that they had no objection to stopping or reducing gambling, but not at the expense of the 600 million shekel income allocated to building classrooms, baby clinics and sports auditoriums. They insisted that the treasury provide alternative sources of funding.

Until now, cities have used lottery money to finance expenses the state was supposed to cover. “The government has a responsibility to provide these funds. Despite the finance minister’s promise to find alternative funding for building classrooms, the ministry’s director general and head of the budgets division have revoked this commitment,” one mayor official said.

Union chairman and Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut mayor Haim Bibas said, “We won’t allow our residents’ quality of life to be harmed because the treasury wants to use local governments as its petty cash box.”

“We’re the last barrier preventing a fatal blow to the quality and standard of living of Israelis,” he said.

The treasury plans to set up a fund for the property taxes collected from government offices, estimated at 850-900 million shekels a year, and redistribute them to local governments according to a formula based on socio-economic principles and indices.

It has promised that local governments will receive the money, “but in a more logical way, that will contribute to narrowing social differences,” a ministry official said.

The real reason for the strike was the plan to reduce gambling and ban slot machines and horse racing, one official said. “The slot machines that ruin families will be removed next year,” he said.