Privatizing community centers would be 'disastrous,' panel is told

Turning community centers (matnasim) into municipal companies will destroy them, the Knesset Education Committee was told Tuesday. Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit is set to change the centers' legal status at the end of the month, according to recomendations contained in the 2005 state comptroller's report. However, all of the representatives at the meeting, from the community centers, to the education and science, culture and sport ministries, to the Knesset members unanimously agreed the move would be disastrous. The comptroller's report did not mention community centers by name, but instead laid out guidelines for non-profit organizations. The report determined that it was not appropriate for cities to distribute municipal funds to private organizations. Instead, the organizations, including community centers, should be given funding support. In order to do that, their legal status needed to be changed. The Interior Ministry is set to change that status next week. MK Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) said he had a letter from the Interior Ministry's legal department outlining an acceptable solution to the problem that would enable the community centers to retain their current status. Avinoam Armoni, head of The Israel Association of Community Centers directorate, added that his organization had proposed seven different legal options to resolve the issue. Armoni explained why the reclassification would be terrible. "Right now, the community centers are independent. If they become municipal companies, they will be under the city's jurisdiction," he said, "Moreover, no one wants to volunteer for the city. The whole network of volunteers would just disappear." Armoni also noted that there was an economic element to the shift. "Non-profits can receive donations from abroad, but municipalities can't receive those kinds of donations. That means the NIS 45 million we received last year would disappear. In addition, the Jewish Agency provides NIS 14 million a year, which they would not be able to give the centers," he said. During the Second Lebanon War, Armoni said, donations were funneled through the community centers in the North as the quickest way to get badly needed funds to communities. If we become municipal companies, we can't serve that function either, he said. The Association runs close to 200 community centers, 130 of which are non-profits and 40 of which are Jewish Agency companies, according to Armoni. The Interior Ministry did not take part in the discussion. Committee Chair Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad) decided to hold an emergency session next week and invite both Sheetrit and Education Minister Yuli Tamir to attend. Until then, he called on the Interior Ministry to freeze the reclassification process until a satisfactory outcome could be achieved.