Opinion: Robbing the citizenPOSTED: 03/25/14 8:30 PM
On the scale of the Netherlands, St. Maarten is a village the size of Doetinchem (with around 57,000 inhabitants on around twice the physical space). A little place like Brummen (21,000 inhabitants) is obviously a lot smaller than St. Maarten in terms of people, but the problems, perceptions and experiences in such places are rather similar. Therefore, the following observations about municipal politics contain some interesting lessons for St. Maarten and its decision makers.
Historian Patrick van Schie, director of the independent scientific bureau of the rightwing VVD (the Telders Foundation) reflected on local politics in a column in Trouw.
A candidate for D66 was the first of candidate for the municipal council on Brummen to make the national news. Asked if he knew the amount of Brummen’s annual budget he gave an honest reply: he had no idea. No reason to panic: as soon as he was elected he would start paying attention to such details. Van Schie notes that this was a clear signal to Brummen’s electorate not to vote for D66 – at least not for this particular candidate.
Few tasks are as important for an elected representative of the people as establishing the budget. Even council members who do have a clue about the expenditures of their municipality often have no idea how much money they are really talking about. That awareness becomes clearer when the total expenditures are divided by the number of inhabitants, Van Schie wrote.
Citizens usually do not know the cost of their local government per capita. When Van Schie asked people about it, the highest estimate was around €2,000 (at the current rate $2,760). In that case, people are living in a relatively cheap town, because the average in the Netherlands is around €3,000 ($4,140) per capita. For larger cities like Rotterdam (€6,041, or $8,337) and Amsterdam (€6,914, or $9,541) the costs are significantly higher.
What does St. Maarten look like compared to these numbers? We do not know exactly, because the results of the 2011 census are – almost three years after the fact – still not completed. So we will use three scenarios: 40,000, 45,000 and 50,000 inhabitants. Our 2014 budget totals 427 million guilders ($238.5 million).In the low scenario (40,000 inhabitants) this puts the price of local government at $5,962 per capita. The middle scenario returns a cost of $5,300 and the top scenario (50,000 inhabitants) $4,770.
This means that even with the most favorable outcome, St. Maarten is still $630 per capita (15.2 percent) more expensive to govern than the average municipality in the Netherlands. And these numbers do not even present the whole picture. This is because there is so much money stuck in government-owned companies that do all kinds of projects that are never subjected to approval by Parliament and of which the costs are not part of the budget. This does not mean that they are not part of the burden citizens have to endure though. To cut a long story short: there is a lot of room for improvement.
In the Netherlands, the government has plans to merge municipalities into larger entities, reasoning that this would bring down the costs, but the figures point in the opposite direction. Think about merging French and Dutch St. Maarten into one entity with the argument that this will make life cheaper for citizens. That merger is of course not in the planning, but the economic argument to come up with such an idea is lacking as well.
We won’t bother our readers with data about the costs in the Netherlands versus the median income because a comparison with St. Maarten on that level makes little sense.
What does make sense is the following: what do Dutch municipalities do with their money? How do they spend it? Building and maintaining roads and sewage systems is something citizens are prepared to pay for, but these activities gobble up only a small part of a municipal budget.
Van Schie notes that the average municipality spends more money on promoting employment than it spends on streets and squares. Note that entrepreneurs are creating jobs – civil servants do not do that. Subsidies for street festivals and neighborhood centers cost more than one and a half time as much as the maintenance of law and order.
The administrative support of an average Executive Council in the Netherlands takes even 2.5 times as much money as public safety. Van Schie points out the obvious: citizens benefit more from police officers in the street than from a battalion of press spokespeople whose main task is to keep citizens and journalists that have bothersome questions away from the politicians.
Rather cynical, Van Schie concludes that many municipalities prefer to apply austerity measures to tasks that benefit the citizen than do the frills around it.
Many political parties in the Netherlands – especially those of a leftwing signature, prefer not to cut costs for the municipal government. Somewhat threatening Van Schie warns: they are preparing the next attack on your wallet. The Association of Dutch Municipalities is already contemplating what local rulers could do with the so-called “unused tax-capacity.”
Van Schie, who lives in the rightwing corner of Dutch politics, even wrote: “Such politicians and civil servants are apparently not after serving the citizen but they are after robbing him.”
Does that sound familiar, or what?