After fire, mayors talk about ‘cities of future’

Steinitz tells conference at IDC Herzliya, "We’re transferring NIS 90 million to the local authorities’ budget.

December 9, 2010 04:20
4 minute read.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz

311_steinitz is feeling cross. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

President Shimon Peres lit Hanukka candles and gave the opening address on Tuesday at the annual Local Authorities Conference, held at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

This year’s conference, under the slogan “Towards the Cities of Tomorrow,” takes place over two days and features a long list of political leaders on the local and national levels, including 150 mayors and assistant mayors.

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The conference is being held against the backdrop of the Carmel forest fire and the pursuant accusations directed at different branches of the government for the country’s lack of preparedness.

“We have seen that a single nargila [hookah] can start a horrible forest fire. Missiles can do the same. They, too, can burn fields. The difference between a scorched Middle East and a green Middle East is peace,” said Peres.

Peres spoke about the bravery and self sacrifice of the firefighters and rescue workers, and the generosity of ordinary citizens who opened their homes to the evacuees.

“The fire caused us great damage, but also shed light on a people the likes of which I have never seen,” he said.

The president also praised the mayors and local authority heads for taking control and providing leadership in a time of crisis, and encouraged them to show the same degree of initiative when facing their daily challenges.

“I am in favor of every mayor and local authority head stepping forward and promoting new ventures in their cities. Cities and villages cannot survive only on municipal taxes; they have to promote hi-tech industries, which will generate income and provide jobs,” said Peres.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz opened his remarks by addressing his ministry’s efforts to rehabilitate the villages in the Carmel that were severely damaged by the fire.

“By Thursday we will have an estimate of the full costs, and we will provide the funds to the local authorities who suffered damages,” said Steinitz. “It will take time – not a day and not a week, but we will make sure that the villages will be rehabilitated in a quick and efficient manner.

We will not allow an Israeli town to fall because of a natural disaster.”

He added that on Wednesday, “the state comptroller’s report of fire services will come out, and I think it will be a severe report. We in the Finance Ministry are convinced that what’s needed is a comprehensive reform in the fire services. I am convinced that after the report comes out, the reform will take place quickly.”

Steinitz also praised the local authority heads for their swift and efficient handling of the crisis and the evacuations.

“The mayors have learned the lessons of the Second Lebanon War and handled the evacuation in an admirable way. We promised the local authority heads that we would compensate them for all the expenses that were involved in the evacuation, and there were no delays because of financial considerations,” said Steinitz.

“Each one of you is also a finance minister of his own local authority. We understand your needs, but I’m sure you also understand my position and the realities that there is never sufficient money for everything,” said Steinitz. “That’s why I am happy to say today that we are transferring NIS 90 million to the local authorities’ budget so that it will reach NIS 2.2 billion and a 25 percent increase in development grants.”

Union of Local Authorities chairman Shlomo Buhbut said that only a reform in the national power structure would bring about change in the daily realities of the local authorities. He spoke about challenges that the authorities faced, with shrinking budgets and increasing responsibilities, and said that the biggest problem Israel faced was not from external threats or geopolitical realities, but lack of internal policies.

“Without serious reforms, Israel’s local authorities will crumble. Disasters happen, not because there is no peace, or because the stock market rises or falls. Disasters happen because there is a governance deficit,” said Buhbut.

Buhbut complained of a lack of respect for local authority heads and lack of cooperation with national agencies.

“We are the only ones who are directly elected by the public, but we are forced to wait before being allowed to meet a minister. The national government should reach out to us, not the other way around,” he said.

Despite assurances on the part of conference attendees not to interrupt him during his address, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who was supposed to take part in the conference, failed to arrive.

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