Budapest mayor lambasts government budget bill
‘Treachery’ raises tension
Karácsony said the government was using the coronavirus crisis “to destroy the local government sector”, which he suggested is the only remaining “counterbalance” to centralised powers. Referring to provisions in the draft, Karácsony said that stripping municipalities of their 50 per cent share in the centrally collected vehicle tax and increasing the municipalities’ solidarity tax would have a “dramatic” impact on local communities.
Concerning the latter tax, Karácsony said Budapest currently pays an annual HUF 10 billion to the central budget, which could grow nearly four-fold in future. On the other hand, the mayor said, Budapest’s public transport revenues have dwindled and the same could happen to local business tax revenues, the city’s primary revenue source.
Karácsony said he was aware the central budget is also impacted by the current recession, but “we still think that this was a deliberate political decision aimed at creating a difficult situation for municipalities, which cannot be explained by the country’s financial situation”.
The budget bill was “not only anti-democratic but it will make eliminating the social and economic crisis much more difficult too”, and he would do everything to thwart the draft in its current form. The mayor called the bill “a draft of treachery” and cited Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as saying on “innumerable occasions” that the government would not take measures that the Budapest council found unsatisfactory.
Commenting on Karácsony’s criticism, Finance Ministry state secretary Péter Benő Banai said Budapest municipal council, being “one of the most well-off local councils”, had a duty to contribute to the budget’s expenditures. Banai suggested that Budapest could afford to pay higher “solidarity contributions”, the municipal council having taken in almost HUF 164 billion in corporate tax revenues last year.
He said Karácsony had failed to mention that the capital is obliged to contribute only 85 percent of what it would be required to pay based on its tax capacity. Neither had the mayor mentioned that next year local councils would receive an additional HUF 7 billion in public funding for carrying out compulsory local government tasks.
After the budget debate, the government fired the next bullet over the postponement of the renovation of the capital’s iconic Chain Bridge. In a letter to Karácsony, Balázs Fürjes, the state secretary for the development of Budapest and the metropolitan area, expressed surprise over the mayor’s announcement on Facebook of the city’s decision to postpone the project indefinitely.
In the letter the state secretary quoted Karácsony as saying publicly last December that “the renovation cannot be postponed any longer” and in January this year that it “cannot be delayed for too long”. Fürjes also referred to the mayor banning heavy vehicles from the bridge “to prevent … further deterioration”.
Fürjes said the recent announcement was “in sharp contrast” to Karácsony’s earlier statements and to the recommendations of an emergency status report prepared by engineers at the mayor’s request last December. He said Karácsony had given the government a copy of the report indicating its conclusion that the renovation could not be postponed any longer, given that the bridge “is in very poor condition”. Highlighting the severe corrosion of the iron structure, the report said any delay would drastically increase costs and could ultimately eliminate the option of renovation.
The Budapest Municipality said in response that the renovation is still a priority but unplanned spending on coronavirus protection, cuts in central allocations and losses in revenues have created a new situation requiring a review of several projects. “The renovation of Chain Bridge is such a project which, despite remaining a priority, needs to be reviewed in terms of its costs and technical content, as well as regarding the bridge’s future function,” Deputy Mayor Dávid Dorosz said.
Road renovations ‘political decision’
The Fidesz mayor of Budapest’s Csepel district, Lénárd Borbély, accused Karácsony of making a political decision by cancelling funding allocations for road renovations in four districts whose mayors are allied with the parties running the national government. Borbély held a joint press conference with ruling party mayors Péter Kovács from the 16th district and Tamás Horváth from the 17th district, and independent Ferenc Bese from the 23rd district.
Borbély said Karácsony cited lost revenues resulting from the novel coronavirus when making “a personal decision” to amend the city’s 2020-2023 road renovation plans. As a result, projects that have already received the necessary permits will be cancelled in districts that are not allied with Karácsony’s political camp, he asserted.
Dorosz said that “unlike the practice of the previous city leadership” the incumbent administration had taken a decision concerning road renovations “based strictly on technical rather than political considerations”. When planning renovations, the city considers the physical condition of roads, their importance, as well as environmental factors, he said.
In the previous cycle some districts, led by Fidesz mayors, could “successfully lobby to have as much as 20 percent of their roads renovated while some other districts could not renew a single square metre”, the deputy mayor insisted. “The current decision is a lot more equitable.”
Homeless in City Hall
Karácsony “cannot open a homeless shelter in the City Hall, a registered monument”, the government’s local office has stated, after officially rejecting a municipal proposal. Setting up a shelter in the 18th-century building would violate zoning rules, the government office said. Further, City Hall was in a World Heritage area frequented by tourists. As for tourism, a homeless shelter “in the middle of the inner city” would not be “fortunate”.
The municipality responded that it will “certainly challenge the decision”. Karácsony said on Facebook: “We will open the shelter and protect homeless people not only from the epidemic but also from those who represent insensitive and heartless policies.” Homeless people have been successfully protected from infection in the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic but preparations are now needed for a potential second wave, he said.
Overcrowding in homeless shelters must be reduced and temporary shelters set up, the mayor said. A section of the City Hall slated to house the Budapest Gallery could be used for temporary shelter, but “the government office wants to prevent this based on made-up excuses”, he added.