BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Municipalities look to new Cabinet with hope but little optimism

File - The Basta bridge is seen under reconstruction in Beirut, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

KOURA/BEIRUT: On the way to Amioun, the well-maintained asphalt abruptly ends as you leave Shekka, giving way to a dangerous stretch of road. Alongside the suddenly precarious route, the once-green mountainside is pockmarked with abandoned quarries, giving the impression of a place forgotten by the outside world. Heading into Amioun, the road trails off into a dirt path full of deep ruts. Karim Bou Karim, the head of the Union of the Municipalities of Koura located in Amioun, said the highway connecting Kousba and Shekka was in such bad shape that it posed a threat to drivers, forcing them to weave dangerously back and forth to avoid the constant potholes.

“The highway is riddled with potholes because of normal wear and tear over a long period of time, compounded with the fact that the asphalting wasn’t up to the proper regulations to begin with,” Bou Karim said. “Half of the municipality’s budget is spent on things that are supposed to be the [national] government’s responsibility.”

Even if the municipality had the means to fix the road, Bou Karim said, the authority to do so lies with the Public Works Ministry.

While new Cabinet is widely expected to receive a vote of confidence from Parliament after resolving the thorny policy statement issue, winning the support of the country’s town and villages may prove a much bigger challenge.

Ten months of political deadlock have left development projects and maintenance work stalled around the country, many in areas that have long dealt with crumbling infrastructure blamed on the national government.

The Independent Municipal Fund, which is run by the Interior and Municipalities Ministry, has not made payments to the local municipalities since 2012, local officials told The Daily Star. The payments for 2013 were halted after Najib Mikati’s Cabinet resigned in March.

“Citizens have a right to come complain to me, and I have nothing to tell them,” Bou Karim said, adding that the municipality had also been doing patchwork repairs on a water pipeline that kept bursting and needed to be replaced.

“Between that and not getting the money owed to us from the Independent Municipal Fund, we’re left with no money to maintain our own roads and infrastructure.”

One of Bou Karim’s aides, who declined to give his name, said the inability to spend funds on projects today would cost more tomorrow.

“A project that we could have gotten done for $100,000, had we been paid on time, will cost $130,000 by the time the money arrives,” he said.

When asked how he expects things to change with the new Cabinet, Bou Karim responded jokingly: “Limping on one leg is better than not being able to walk at all. At least now we’ll have someone to talk to. Previously there was no one to reach out to at all.”

While Bou Karim has some optimism for change, he warned that results would still be dependent on the political motivations of the individual ministers.

“If there is a will there is a way,” he quipped. “Unfortunately there is very little will unless there are political motives backing an action.”

Other mayors expressed similar sentiments, complaining that the central government had failed to carry out basic infrastructure maintenance, from highways to parks to solid waste plants, forcing municipalities to fill in at a time when local government funds are low.

According to Mohammad Saab, the head of the Union of Municipalities of Arkoub in South Lebanon, many municipalities have been forced into enormous debt. He was pessimistic about the chance of the new Cabinet making up for lost time.

“We never got services or help from the government; the government never helped us to begin with. Why should things change now?” Saab asked.

In the Western Bekaa town of Khiara, Mayor Kassem Mazloum said all planned projects had to be put on hold when the funds from the Independent Municipal Fund failed to appear last year.

“Basic plans to improve infrastructure, such as improving roads and building retaining walls, had to be postponed indefinitely,” he said.

An additional package within the fund reserved for municipalities with fewer than 4,000 registered residents has also been delayed, he added, expressing hope that the new Cabinet would unfreeze these funds.

Many of the larger municipalities said they were unable to pay their employees due to the drop in income expected from the government.

Another common complaint was that the government had still not paid the municipalities their portion of telecoms revenues. These funds are part of the $1.2 billion of telecom sector revenue that has been owed to municipalities since 1994, and the funds were supposed to be distributed in mid-April 2013 but have not yet appeared.

While the new Cabinet offers a ray of hope, municipal officials said the mechanism for distributing funds should be reformed to allow them to function independently in the not-so-unlikely event the country is left without a functioning government again.

A draft law intended to promote decentralization would give municipalities greater control over their own funding. The proposal, which was written by former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud and promoted by President Michel Sleiman, would transform the Independent Municipal Fund into “decentralized fund” offering more transparency.

Under the proposed law, the distribution of funds would be supervised by officials from the municipalities instead of having the money divided according to the number of citizens in each municipality, which results in larger cities, namely Beirut, receiving much larger portions of the revenues than smaller areas.

The law has yet to be formally presented to the Cabinet for approval, but in the meantime, municipal officials say they would settle for the funds owed to them.

“Hopefully we will get the money we’re owed and the wheel will start turning in the right direction,” Mazloum said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 21, 2014, on page 4.

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Summary

Karim Bou Karim, the head of the Union of the Municipalities of Koura located in Amioun, said the highway connecting Kousba and Shekka was in such bad shape that it posed a threat to drivers, forcing them to weave dangerously back and forth to avoid the constant potholes.

According to Mohammad Saab, the head of the Union of Municipalities of Arkoub in South Lebanon, many municipalities have been forced into enormous debt.

"Basic plans to improve infrastructure, such as improving roads and building retaining walls, had to be postponed indefinitely," he said.

An additional package within the fund reserved for municipalities with fewer than 4,000 registered residents has also been delayed, he added, expressing hope that the new Cabinet would unfreeze these funds.

These funds are part of the $1.2 billion of telecom sector revenue that has been owed to municipalities since 1994, and the funds were supposed to be distributed in mid-April 2013 but have not yet appeared.

Under the proposed law, the distribution of funds would be supervised by officials from the municipalities instead of having the money divided according to the number of citizens in each municipality, which results in larger cities, namely Beirut, receiving much larger portions of the revenues than smaller areas.


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