Once again, Tel Aviv municipality throws budget transparency out the window

Dec 21st, 2012 | By | Category: budget

With city council set to vote on a $1.3 billion draft budget next week, the actual numbers have not yet been made public. Meanwhile, the mayor has banned residents from attending council meetings.

Tel Aviv’s city council is set to vote on a proposed $1.3 billion (!) municipal budget for 2013 next Monday, the day before Christmas.

It’s quite a hefty budget, roughly equal to the entire national budgets of small countries like the Bahamas and Nicaragua. The 2013 draft is up from $1.07 billion in 2012. Not bad in the midst of a global economic crisis. It’s also expected to be a balanced budget, with the city’s expenditures more or less matching revenue, and some $213 million of it is set aside for development projects, like renovating schools and repaving roads.

The city’s budget is put together, like most municipal policy, by senior officials inside city hall. Residents of the city, who may want to influence how the money from their city taxes and parking tickets is spent, have no formal channel for helping draft the budget. Theoretically, now would be the time for citizens to peruse the budget, form an opinion about it and contact city council members if they have other ideas about how the city should spend their money during the coming year.

However, with only a couple of days until the city council votes to approve the document (which it most likely will), city hall has unfortunately decided not to publish the full budget numbers, at least not until after they are approved (at which point, of course, it will be too late to do anything about them).

In lieu of the actual numbers, city hall published a press release this week, which of course painted a rosy picture of the city’s financial management, along with a couple of pdfs containing information about city hall’s general policy priorities.

The city’s move is somewhat surprising, since back in 2010 the city was ordered by a district court judge to release its 2011 budget in an open spreadsheet format, such as Excel. Then, too, the municipality refused demands for greater budget transparency, but the judge insisted that public information should be provided to citizens in a way that would allow them to analyze it themselves, instead of just taking city hall’s word for it.

Adding insult to injury, concerned citizens who may still wish to make their voices heard at the city council discussion on Monday will not have that option either. Mayor Ron Huldai unapologetically barred the public from attending city council meetings back in the summer, and that (somewhat anti-democratic) move has somehow managed to stick.

So there you have it: the public is purposefully kept in the dark about the specific details of the city’s budget, and then prevented from taking part in the debate on it in what is supposed to be the city’s parliament. This year, once again, a handful of senior officials (mostly older, wealthy, white men, who cannot be said to represent the city’s diverse population) will decide how to distribute over a billion dollars of public funds, and there’s basically nothing we can do about it.

Merry Christmas!

Update: The city council voted 20-8 to approve the budget on Dec. 24. The budget documents themselves finally appeared on the municipality’s website sometime in the preceding 24 hours.

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