The situation awaiting Granada’s Mayor-elect Eulogio Mejía, who takes office next week, is dire, to say the least.
City workers, some of whom haven’t been paid in more than a month, are on strike. Uncollected garbage is piling on the streets, or being dumped along the lakeshore or in riverbeds. Basic infrastructure and historic sites are crumbling, and the city’s financial situation is completely unsustainable.
Those circumstances, Mejía said this week, will require swift “emergency actions.”
While his predecessor, Alvaro Chamorro, the city’s first Sandinista mayor, assumed office four years ago during an upswing in the local real-estate and investment sectors, the market here has since cooled – in part due to Chamorro’s legacy. The Sandinista mayor took office with a long list of ambitious plans, yet his inept, pork-barrel administration was unable to accomplish any of his stated goals, or even administer the city on the most basic level.
For his failed leadership, Chamorro was promptly run out of office after two dismal years and amid allegations of corruption. So in some regards, Mejía, a member of Granada’s traditional Conservative Party who ran on the Liberal Party alliance, doesn’t have a very tough act to follow. Still, the mayor-elect is approaching his new job with caution.
Instead of entering office with a flurry of Chomorroesque promises – a new zoo, new museum, new convention center, new market and municipal theater, to name a few of the previous mayor’s empty promises – Mejía is taking a more grounded approach. Literally.
The new mayor’s top priority is to clean the garbage off the ground.
“We need to clean the city. Immediately,” Mejía told The Nica Times in an interview this week, adding that it is “impossible” to sell the city as a tourism destination or investment offering if it’s drowning in litter.
“It is a shame that during the tourism high season, visitors are going away with this impression of the city,” said Mejía, who will take office Jan. 15. “The garbage collectors haven’t been paid in four weeks. We are going to look for a bridge to resolve this problem. The immediate issue is the garbage. We need to take emergency actions.”
Underlying the garbage problem is the issue of the city’s monstrous payroll of more than $111,000, which represents some 80 percent of the city’s monthly income.
During Chamorro’s first year in office in 2005, the disgraced former mayor increased the size of the municipal government payroll by 25 percent, padding his staff with cronies and other people of dubious relevant job skills or experience.
After Chamorro resigned from office in January 2007, Vice Mayor Rosalía Castrillo inherited the mess. She told The Nica Times during an interview five months into her new job that the municipality was overstaffed by 150 employees – some of whom had no job function, while others were so “undisciplined” that they “have jobs but don’t do them” (NT, June 8, 2007).
The mayor’s office was also deeply indebted, owing creditors around $850,000, including a nearly half-million dollar debt to the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS).
To her credit, Castrillo has managed to reduce the INSS deficit to around $120,000 in two years, setting the table for Mejía to settle the longstanding debt and normalize the city’s payments to INSS, which provides city employees with health insurance as well as pension payments.
Yet still included on the city’s bloated payroll, Mejía said, are some two dozen retired employees who continue to receive city paychecks because INSS refuses to pay any pension checks until Granada sorts out its pending debt problem.
“If we come up with a payment arrangement with the INSS, these people will be taken off the payroll and given pension payments,” Mejía said. “So that’s another way to save some money on payroll.”
By getting the city’s finances and payroll in order, Granada will help to resolve the constant problem of striking workers and hopefully contribute to a new culture of improved tax collection, Mejía said. The problem now, the incoming mayor noted, is that Granadinos don’t want to pay taxes or contribute to a system that doesn’t work and a municipal government that has “gotten out of hand.”
“The important part is to generate confidence in the Granadino so that he or she starts to see public works and begins to feel like there is a reason to pay taxes,” Mejía said.
“Here people think it’s unfair to collect taxes when they see a city that is deteriorating, dirty and constantly on strike.”
Mejía added, “People want to see an orderly city with clean streets, with paved roads – this is what tourism needs, so there can be investment, job creation and the generation of tax income.”
A Global City
The new mayor also hopes to contribute to the city’s development and income by reviving Granada’s 15 “sister city” cooperation programs with cities around the world. Out of the 15 sister cities that Granada has with counterparts in the United States, Europe and Latin America, only three to four are currently active, Mejía said.
The incoming mayor says he has already designated a representative of the mayor’s office to reestablish contact with all of Granada’s sister cities “to reactivate (the relationship), see what happened and what went wrong, so we can we fix it and ask for a new opportunity for the city.”
Mejía said he hopes those revived relations could help to thaw old solidarity projects in areas of infrastructure, financial assistance, equipment and other forms of institutional cooperation.
Another key element of Mejía’s plan to work with foreigners is to open his office doors to investors and expatriates living here. He has already met with a group of foreign investors living in Granada and plans to make such meetings a monthly occurrence.
As someone who touts his private-sector roots, Mejía said he is also going to open up a new office of attention and service for foreign investors. The office, which will be located in the Alcaldia, will have a multi-lingual staff to help investors with information and permit processing, Mejía said.
The investment office will also be a direct liaison between the private sector and the mayor, he said.
“The idea is to be a bridge, not a wall” to investment, he said.
“I come from origins of private business and am a firm believer that private business is the only thing that can move this city forward,” the rice-farmer turned mayor said. “So it’s my obligation to give all the security and support that private business needs. But I am asking that we work together to get this city moving forward.”