Reform local authorities

Why is a general strike necessary to solve the problem of unnecessary, bankrupt councils?

civil strike 1 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
civil strike 1 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A number of the over 250 local councils that are supposed to provide certain basic services in this tiny country are bankrupt. Many of these councils should not exist, and should be merged. So why have successive governments tolerated this situation, particularly on the backs of local council workers who have worked for months without pay? Why is a general strike necessary to solve this problem? At this writing, it is unclear whether or when the Labor Court, which met yesterday for hours in an effort to mediate between the parties, will succeed in brokering an agreement or will hand down a ruling of its own. Whatever the court decides, however, will likely not address the structural problems which resulted in over 10,000 local council workers not receiving their pay for months, and even for years. It is intolerable that these workers should bear such a disproportionate price for the failures of their higher-ups, both in the local councils and in the central government. It is also intolerable that the entire country can be held economic hostage by strikes that cut off essential services and spread their punishment far beyond the offending institutions. There has got to be a better way, and there is. The first step is to address the root cause of the problem: cases of dysfunctional local government. The game of local authorities running huge deficits and then forcing money out of the public treasury with strikes and sob stories has been going on for decades. Authorities with political clout and connections have been able to get away with such behavior. Eventually, in a few extreme cases like Yeroham, Lod and Bnei Brak, the government has stepped in and appointed a new leadership. In the short term, it is clear that more failing local governments should be taken over, merged, or forced to accept tighter oversight. Numerous independent commissions have made such recommendations, but their useful proposals have been overcome by the political clout of failing councils, and of mayors who happen to belong to parties in power in Jerusalem. Under the government of Binyamin Netanyahu, for example, an effort was made to reduce the number of local councils to about 150 - still a very large number for a country of only 7 million people. It did not go very far. In the end, only about four local councils were eliminated, though about half of the councils serve less than 20,000 people. Only about 10 percent of the local councils manage to balance their budgets. The others receive help from the central government. There is nothing in principle wrong with some level of subsidies flowing from larger, wealthier areas to smaller councils in the periphery. But there is no reason for the taxpayer to finance flagrant and systemic deficits, or the administrative costs of councils that should not exist in the first place. Though the step of replacing an elected council with an appointed one is draconian, there are less drastic solutions. In some cases, requiring new local elections could improve matters without compromising so drastically democratic principles. Another step that has been taken and could be employed more widely is to appoint an accountant from the Interior Ministry to provide greater real-time oversight regarding a local council's spending. But these types of procedures should go both ways. Well run local councils enjoying surpluses should be freed from onerous federal regulations, many of which stem from outdated Mandate-era laws. Such councils should also be allowed to float municipal bonds to raise funds. At the same time, the Histadrut's ability to shut down essential services, such as ports, must be placed under greater limits. In the US, for example, certain public sector workers may not strike at all. Citizens have a right to demand that government workers be paid, that bloated bureaucracies be trimmed, and that essential services not be cut off at a whim. The solutions to such problems are well known, awaiting a leadership that will push through common sense reforms that serve the public, regardless of entrenched political interests.