In an unprecedented show of cooperation between central and local governments – at least in recent memory – the administration of President Oscar Arias is promising the country’s mayors-elect funding that’s been withheld for years, increased communication, and, if the Legislative Assembly plays along, legal reforms to give local governments more power.
The new municipal leaders were elected in lackluster elections late last year that brought only 24% of eligible voters to the polls. Though they will take office Feb. 5 with small budgets, limited power and wide-spread citizen apathy, even seasoned politicians sounded optimistic this week.
“It seems like an excellent sign that don Oscar is giving us,” said Fernando Trejos, mayor-elect of eastern San José suburb Montes de Oca and Labor Minister during former President Abel Pacheco’s administration (2002-2006). “I think the statements of the President and his ministers, that they want to work with us, are sincere.”
“This is the first time I’ve seen this,” Santa Cruz mayor-elect and longtime municipal presence Jorge Enrique Chavarría, who will oversee popular tourist destinations such as Tamarindo in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, told The Tico Times of last week’s meeting between Arias and the new mayors. “President Arias is very municipal-minded. (The relationship) is much closer now.”
Trejos, Chavarría and their counterparts have been preparing for their four-year terms by meeting with national and international authorities in a series of trainings and summits. Yesterday and today, the soon-to be leaders are meeting at EARTH University in the Caribbean-slope town of Guácimo to become acquainted with international initiatives that require municipal cooperation.
Last week, all but one of the 81 incoming mayors converged on Casa Presidencial in Zapote, in southeast San José, to meet with Arias and most of his Cabinet.
There, they were informed that the government has ensured they’ll receive their share of tax money for the first time in years – in particular, all ¢17 billion (approximately $33 million) they’re due from a gas tax designed to provide funds for municipal road improvements, funds that became the subject of controversy and Supreme Court decisions when the central government refused to turn them over during the Pacheco administration. In addition, work is under way within the Legislative Assembly to significantly increase municipal power during the next four years, according to Fabio Molina, a former mayor who heads the Institute for Municipal Development (IFAM).
“In the developed world, especially in Europe, Canada and the United States, local governments drive development,” Molina told The Tico Times this week. “In Costa Rica we’ve relegated them (to last place) for many years. What we’re trying to do during the Arias administration is make them toplevel actors in the country.”
He said that various events to prepare new and returning mayors for this task have boasted excellent attendance. A December financial training at the Central American School of Business Administration (INCAE) drew 65 mayors, while last week’s event drew 80. Carlos Luis Marín, mayor-elect of Liberia, capital of the northwestern province of Guanacaste, said such events are worth the trip.
“Although we’re local governments, we depend on central institutions,” he told The Tico Times, adding that he hoped to firm up plans with the Labor Ministry to create an employment directory to connect new businesses arriving in the booming province, where many multinational corporations and hotels are setting up shop, to local entrepreneurs who can meet their needs.
While Molina, who has worked with IFAM since 1986, declined to comment on previous administrations’ cooperation with municipal governments, he did say last week’s meeting was “without precedent.”
At the Casa Presidencial gathering, dubbed the National-Local Government Coordination Meeting, a series of speakers including the ministers of Public Works and Transport, Housing, Tourism, Public Security, Justice, Planning, Environment and Energy, and Foreign Trade outlined their plans for the next four years, focusing on the areas where local and central authorities will need to coordinate.
The deterioration of municipal roadways is, unsurprisingly, a top priority. Transport Minister Karla González said she plans to work with mayors this year to maintain 2,700 km of local roads, improve 325 km, build 56 bridges and rebuild 16.
She admitted that while fixing potholes is necessary until more profound improvements can take place, most of the country’s roads are fundamentally flawed and must be rebuilt. “We’re throwing asphalt into a pothole of waste,” she said.
Both President Arias – who ended the Jan. 18 meeting with a speech in which he railed against the evils of dictatorship in general and Cuban President Fidel Castro in particular – and his brother and spokesman, Rodrigo Arias, promised mayors their support. The President also urged them to get competitive.
“You should fight among one canton and another to see who attracts more foreign direct investment (FDI),” he told the crowd, emphasizing the importance of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) for Costa Rica’s future.
Rodrigo Arias said the meeting will become an annual occurrence, as well as more frequent individual meetings; Molina told The Tico Times regional meetings will also occur. Casa Presidencial has asked each government institution to designate toplevel officials responsible for communicating with municipalities, according to Marco Vargas, Minister of Inter-Institutional Coordination.
While these measures will help improve municipal governments in the short term, however, Molina said far-reaching legal reforms are necessary – a prospect mayors, analysts, legislators and others have urged for decades.
Among the most urgent problems plaguing municipalities, according to those leaders and onlookers, are the 1.7% of the national budget they have to work with, a drastically low percentage when compared to developed countries; power struggles between mayors and their municipal councils; and much-criticized election timing, which has some local authorities elected every fourth February with the President and legislators, and others, including the mayors, elected 10 months later (TT, Oct. 20, 2006).
Molina said IFAM is hard at work with the political parties represented in the assembly to put together a group of laws to strengthen municipalities. These would raise taxes on commercial patents, liquor and other goods to provide increased municipal funds; unify the municipal elections and schedule them in February, two years after the presidential and legislative contests; give political parties state funding for these elections; and gradually increase national funding for municipal governments. The target: to give municipalities 10% of the national budget within seven years,Molina said.