Without a budget, we will bring the country to a halt

Haim Bibas – chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel – takes the time to discuss the challenges of working without a functioning government.

Pictured, a presentation from the Israeli MUNI-EXPO 2019 (photo credit: JORGE NOVOMINSKI)
Pictured, a presentation from the Israeli MUNI-EXPO 2019
(photo credit: JORGE NOVOMINSKI)
“If, in two weeks time, when the elections are behind us, they will be unable to set up a government or to approve a budget, we will have to stop everything. We’ll shut down the country”, declares Bibas, chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities, and explains: “We cannot carry on without a budget."
The lack of a functioning government has made the last year difficult for the entire economy. The local authorities stepped in to fill the vacuum, taking on new responsibilities and making their voices heard on issues that they had never previously been involved in. Some of them opened bus lines on Shabbat or dedicated themselves to sustainability issues with increased fervour. A lot of local councils also came out strongly against the comments made by Rafi Peretz, the Minister of Education, regarding the LGBT community, with some of them deciding to open one of the following schooldays with lessons on tolerance and equality.
“For an entire year, we have been the only functioning executive body, running everything single-handedly,” he says. “But without a budget, we will be unable to advance all those issues that fall under our purview, such as education, for example. Without funding from the state, on 1st September, we will not have enough educational institutions and classrooms and we will be unable to open the new school year. We took it on ourselves to promote new programs and start construction work which involved large-scale funding, but we cannot complete it on our own. There’s no magic solution – we’re talking about hundreds of millions of shekels.”
Last week, the Ministry of Finance and the heads of the local councils reached an agreement for an immediate transfer of NIS 400 million for welfare services in local councils, funds that were previously held up as a result of the political gridlock. “For us, this funding means being able to maintain these vital programs, having the necessary tools to assist struggling communities and to tackle the increase in violence.”
In addition to transferring the required budgets, Bibas is clear on what else is necessary to change the picture: “For years we have been asking for additional powers to match the increased responsibility we have been asked to take on. That would enable us to manage our cities properly and reduce our reliance on clerks and bureaucracy. Government offices only get in the way for the most part, with excessive regulations and constant attempts to put spokes in our wheels. The last year has proven that we are Israel’s responsible grown-up, the ones carrying the country on our backs, and as such, we should have the authority to act without having to constantly go through government clerks.
“The local councils that have coped best throughout this past year without a government have been the autonomous ones that are not reliant on government funding, the ones that are less dependent on the state. We need to enable reduced regulations for those local councils who are still reliant on government funding. The less the bureaucracy gets in our way, the better the services we will be able to provide our residents.
Are you not concerned that concentrating too much power in the hands of mayors may lead to corruption, as has happened in the past?
“The rotten apples need to be dealt with, and we will make sure they are put behind bars, but you cannot collectively punish all mayors as a response. The majority of them are honest, serious people who have answered the call on behalf of their public. The local government has all the necessary oversight systems in place: internal and external auditing, the State Comptroller, the legal advisors and the gatekeepers.”
Education is a subject that is close to Bibas’ heart, especially in his additional role as mayor of Modi-in-Maccabim-Reut. “Education is the cornerstone of effective and proper management of the city”, he says, noting that this issue is one of the top priorities of the Federation of Local Authorities for the coming year. “We will not accept a single shekel cut from the education budget.”
Another priority for the Federation of Local Authorities this year is “safe cities”, ensuring the home front is prepared for Israel’s next military conflict. “We are working full-steam ahead with the Home Front Command and the various offices to ensure that we are ready for the moment of truth”, says Bibas. “The rockets that strike Israel from every direction turn our homes into part of the front, and we need the ability to manage events as first responders, to provide the IDF and the government with the space they need to operate and to make the right decisions.
This week will see the opening of the MUNI-EXPO 2020 Conference of Local Councils on Innovation, which, according to Bibas, “is the clearest sign of all of the need to continue to increase the autonomy of local councils in Israel.”
More than 120 heads of local councils from around the world will participate in the conference, which this year is returning to Tel Aviv for the fourth time. The conference acts as a networking and cooperation space for local councils in Israel. It will also include an urban innovation fair, with 150 participants in the field of urban management presenting smart solutions for city management, energy consumption, cyber-security and emergency responses.
The “City of Tomorrow” convention that will take place as part of the conference will bring to life the vision of the city of tomorrow advanced by the Federation of Local Councils in the fields of urban planning, future transportation models, energy, clean air and “happy cities”.
“The Conference of Local Councils is the home of urban innovation, and the conference is a key information centre in that process”, says Bibas, who is on the call whilst on his way to inaugurate a new innovation centre in Shfar'am. “There is almost no aspect of the daily lives of city residents here in Israel where we are not having an impact. The integration of new technology in local councils enables them to save money that would otherwise be wasted on expensive bureaucratic procedures, and to invest it back in education, leisure and culture.”
In his words, the vision of the Federation of Local Authorities is to introduce basic smart infrastructure to all 257 councils in Israel. “The challenge is to ease access to innovation in the periphery and in all sectors of Israeli society – and that’s what we are doing.”
Until recent years, there was almost no relationship between the private sector and local councils.
“Today, it is impossible to generate any momentum for any government or local council initiative without discussing it with the business sector. The cost of developing smart city solutions requires huge budgets, and even the mighty Tel Aviv is unable to meet those costs by itself. We can provide the companies with the necessary tools and our experience and knowledge, and they can create the technological processes that will ultimately be integrated into all the councils. Any other solution is unrealistic.”
This article was written in cooperation with the Local Government Conference for Innovation