Local Authorities in Crisis / The Cossack Who Was Robbed

We have enough of threats and intimidation, strikes and demonstrations, but holding up the salaries of municipal workers for such a long period is too much to bear. The heart says set the money free, give the local authorities what they demand.

We have enough of threats and intimidation, strikes and demonstrations, but holding up the salaries of municipal workers for such a long period is too much to bear. The heart says set the money free, give the local authorities what they demand, because it is impossible to watch people go to work every morning and get no pay at the end of the month, and be forced to barely live on costly loans and the charity of families.

We have already become used to the poverty of the unemployed and those on welfare, but the poverty of devoted workers? That is too much to watch.

But on second thoughts, the crises in the municipalities are not new. They did not begin today. Year in, year out, with mathematical precision, the local authorities strike, threats are heard that the school year will not begin, and the heads of the local authorities put up their tents in Jerusalem across from the government offices and the Knesset to protest budget cuts.

So who's to blame? Might the heads of the local authorities have a hand in it? The Interior Ministry and the local authorities claim that until 2002 the situation was quite good, and only the cruel cuts of the 2003 bridging payments plunged the municipalities into crisis.

However an internal treasury document reveals the crisis did not begin in 2003, but before. Most local authorities ended 2002 with a significant current deficit, even before the cuts. Some, like Yavneh, Ramle, Migdal Ha'emek, Arad, Mazkeret Batya and Taibeh took their situation seriously and implemented recovery programs. But others continued profligate spending and even increased their deficit in 2003, an election year in the local authorities.

But it would be a mistake to start the count from 2002. The seeds of the crisis were sown back in 1984 when Shas got control of the Interior Ministry, which it held until 2002, except for short periods under Ehud Barak, Haim Ramon, and Natan Sharansky.

During the happy Shas years, if the head of a local council would promise a synagogue, a kollel (yeshiva for married men) or a ritual bath, he would immediately receive handsome sums from the interior minister. No one checked whether the budget had been exceeded or not.

The reports of auditors appointed to supervise the municipalities were submitted after the end of the fiscal year and were never implemented. No one forced the council head to be efficient or to cut the budget.

Many council heads turned the local authority into a jobs factory for their relatives, friends, and party members. They appointed paid deputies, wasted money extravagantly, and increased their staff out of all proportion. Afterward, when they wanted to be reelected, they tried to get the public to like them by not collecting city taxes, to the extent that municipalities are now owed many billions in back taxes.

Out of 155 local councils in need of recovery plans, only 57 have committed themselves to their implementation. The plans of 34 of them are in the process of being approved, 19 have not submitted programs and 45 municipalities that have had their plans approved by the Interior Ministry have decided not to implement them.

As a result, these municipalities will not receive the millions of shekels waiting for them in the Interior Ministry as part of the recovery plan, and the workers of those municipalities will not receive their salaries.

This is the height of cynicism. These are local authority heads who want the honey but not the stinger. They want the Interior Ministry's loans and grants, but they do not want to appoint an external ministry auditor to scrutinize and sign off on every expense.

They also do not want to reach a situation where they did not meet the obligations of the plan, at which point the interior minister is authorized to discharge them and appoint a governing committee.

Their goal is simple, to continue to hold the workers hostage, to continue not paying their salaries, not to begin the school year, and to have the workers go out to protest to create political pressure on the treasury and the prime minister to transfer the money to them, even without agreed-on recovery programs.

The bottom line that the main responsibility for the crisis, for its not being solved, and for the workers not receiving their salaries, sits on the shoulders of generations of local council heads. To a lesser extent, responsibility also rests with the treasury for slashing the bridging payments.