QC to realign councilors’ funds (1/2)

First published in The Philippine Star, 15 September 2013

Local legislators in Quezon City have around P7 to P40 million each – or a total of P679 million – to fund soft projects such as livelihood programs and medical missions in their respective districts this year.

But according to Vice Mayor Joy Belmonte, the local government is planning to follow the lead of the House of Representatives and transfer the funds to the line departments under the executive department.

“We want to follow the example of Congress,” Belmonte said in an interview with The STAR.

“The stand of (Mayor Herbert Bautista) is to transfer the funds for soft projects to the line departments. But they (councilors) will still have the prerogative to identify the projects,” she added.

he proposal to move the funds for soft projects of Quezon City councilors came amid the issue of the P10-billion scam involving the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of some members of the House and Senate.

Recently, the House of Representatives – headed by Belmonte’s father, Speaker and Quezon City fourth district Rep. Feliciano Belmonte – decided to realign their PDAF to executive agencies such as the Departments of Education, Health, and Public Works and Highways.

The vice mayor said the local government wants to follow the lead of the House of Representatives to dispel issues of misuse of funds involving large budget allocations.

She maintained that there were no cases of corruption involving the implementation of soft projects of Quezon City councilors, saying reports of the Commission on Audit (COA) did not mention irregularities in the projects.

“We need to show that corruption did not and will never happen in Quezon City,” said Belmonte.

Sought for comment, city council majority floor leader Bong Suntay said it does not matter if the local government would decide to realign the funds for soft projects of councilors.

“We don’t really mind where they will put the budget. We just want our constituents to benefit from the funds,” said Suntay.

Minority floor leader Eufemio Lagumbay agreed with Suntay, saying they will follow the decision of the city officials.

Both councilors insisted that procedures were followed in the implementation of the soft projects, echoing Belmonte in saying that no corruption is involved in the said programs.

Community budget

Valerie Torres, legislative officer at the office of the vice mayor, said the budget for soft projects – called the Community Outreach Program (COP) – is under the “Other Maintenance and Operating Expenses (OMOE)” item in the budget of the councilors.

Based on the 2013 General Fund of Quezon City, over P679 million was the total allotment for the OMOE of 26 councilors, including the two ex-officio members of the city council.

The office of the ex-officio councilors – representing the youth and the barangays – each has P7.9 million OMOE for 2013.

Elected Quezon City councilors from Districts 1 to 4 each have P15 million to P40 million OMOE this year. This comprises the bulk of the budget of a Quezon City councilor.

For 2013, the total budget of each councilor – including funds for personal services (PS), OMOE, and property, plant and equipment (PPE) – ranges from P11 million (sectoral representatives) to P46 million.

The 2013 General Fund did not include the budget for the newly created 12 council seats in Quezon City. The seats – which were filled during the May elections – came with the creation of two new legislative districts in the city.

Torres said the 2013 budget for the new council seats came from appropriations from the office of the city mayor.

She said the amount is around half of the allotment for the other sitting councilors, sans the PPE as the equipment and fixtures for the new offices have been provided for by the local government.

The new councilors started their term on June 30, thus the half-year budget.

‘Not pork barrel’

City officials maintained that the funds for the COP of Quezon City councilors are different from the PDAF received by the national lawmakers.

Belmonte explained that prior to the approval of the city’s general fund, councilors had to submit a proposal for projects that they want to implement for the following year.

The proposal will go through the city council’s committee on finance, which would allocate the budget estimate for the said project.

Torres said the process of getting the proposal for soft projects approved would take at least three months.

She noted that unlike in the case of PDAF – which are given to representatives and senators in lump sum amounting to P70 million and P200 million, respectively each year – the soft projects of Quezon City councilors are not implemented by non-government organizations.

She added all projects will undergo the mandatory bidding process, and excess amounts (coming from bids cheaper than the budget allotment) would return to the general fund of the city.

Suntay stressed that unlike in Congress, the budget for the councilors’ soft projects are in line items and could be properly audited.

“We know how much is allotted for the purchase of medicines or livelihood programs,” he said.

“We are required to submit proposals,” added Lagumbay, explaining why the OMOE of the councilors are different.

Based on the bid notices posted on the website of the Quezon City government, councilors spend millions of their allocation for soft projects for the purchase of various materials for livelihood projects such as tools to make stuff toys, candles or perfumes.

Some councilors also bid out deals to supply iPads, school bags, medical supplies, ambulance stretchers, tents, and uniforms for tricycle drivers and operators association, among others.

In the 2010 General Fund of the Quezon City local government, the COP was described as programs that “provide social amelioration services which includes medical and dental services, Operation Tule (circumcision), livelihood and others.”

At the time, councilors received more than P20.4 million each for COP.

No direct control

In the proposal, Belmonte said the transfer of budget for soft projects would remove the funds from the direct control of the councilors.

The move, according to her, was similar to the one adopted by the House of Representatives following criticisms that lawmakers are elected to enact laws and not to implement projects.

“You are transferring the funds and the functions to the departments that are mandated by law to undertake these tasks,” she said, referring to the agencies under the executive.

However, Belmonte said the transfer will not take the privilege of the councilors to propose projects as the public expects them “to give certain services” and not just pass ordinances.

“Some councilors really have good ideas (for projects) and it’s not fair if they could not recommend. The councilor can suggest projects based on his or her knowledge of their districts,” she added.

Changing the political system

Both Suntay and Lagumbay agreed with Belmonte’s observation that councilors are seen by the public as officials who are supposed to implement programs and not just enact laws.

“Every day, there are lines outside the offices of the councilors. They are asking for support, submitting letters of solicitation,” Suntay said.

The majority floor leader said constituents are not only expecting ordinances from councilors but also support for their everyday needs such as burial, medical, educational and livelihood assistance.

Lagumbay said people often think that what they can ask from the mayor and the vice mayor, they can also ask from the councilors.

“They expect everyone to answer to their calls,” he said.

Belmonte said the plan to transfer the budget for soft projects to the line departments will be a move to change a flaw in the country’s political system.

“People do not elect their legislators based on performance as legislators but as executives,” said Belmonte.

“What’s happening is more or less, we are trying to correct the system,” she added.

Belmonte said they have already launched a website where the public can see and assess the performance of councilors in policy-making.

“It’s a long protracted process, and it has to start somewhere,” she said.

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