By: CHRIS GRAEME
ONE YEAR ago, Lisbon Câmara was at a standstill: it was virtually bankrupt, seen as incompetent, had no political consensus and had lurched from one crisis to another.
Nine months later, after last year’s forced mid-term elections following the Bragaparques scandal, the municipal authority under Dr António Costa is finally cooperating and facing its problems head on.
“Today the Lisbon Câmara is seeking ways to stop being the greatest problem for the city’s development,” he told guests at a lunch organised by the American Club of Lisbon at the Sheraton Lisboa last week. He highlighted the triple crisis that had brought about the unanticipated elections.
That crisis was marked by a political aspect, a lack of credibility and an enormous financial crisis.
At the political level, the Câmara had been paralysed by rows and political in-fighting and fresh elections failed to secure a PS majority for António Costa, although there was one at Municipal Assembly level.
“In the first nine months of the present term, we are now in a position where we have an excellent working relationship between the Câmara and the Municipal Assembly, only two proposals have been defeated, and it has been possible to create some stability,” he said.
The treasury exchequer’s, Tribunal de Contas, refusal to allow a 360 million euro bank loan meant the Câmara had to make alternative arrangements to pay off its debts, but council members have managed to reach agreement on a timetable to pay off creditors.
Then there was the lack of credibility following widespread abuse and incompetence at the Câmara’s urban services, Câmara-run companies and departments.
“The Câmara hasn’t pretended there wasn’t a problem, instead we’ve looked at the measures that have to be taken, including disciplinary ones, which are underway, and with the help of the Public Ministry, Ministério Público, we’re trying to solve the cause of these problems,” he admitted.
This meant a complete restructuring and rationalisation of urban services, cutting out unnecessary duplication, improving efficiency and cost-cutting.
This included the introduction of a new set of regulations to regulate the activities of urban services since the problems had arisen partly because of a lack of clear, coherent regulations which had been open to interpretation and misinterpretation.
A case in point that symbolised the inertia and lack of confidence at the Câmara was the Parque Mayer saga.
“For 19 years, successive municipal administrations have had plans to regenerate this part of town, now with decisive force a decision has been taken, 26 architects submitted plans, and five have been invited to submit detailed plans and a final redevelopment decision will be taken in the summer,” he said.
Then there was the financial crisis. Lisbon had clocked up a short term debt to suppliers totalling 360 million euros while the overall debt stood at 1.2 billion euros.
“This strangled the Câmara and the day to day functioning of the city,” he said, adding that “we couldn’t even maintain our parks and gardens or replace our street lighting”.
The situation is now being overcome, 140 million euros has been paid off, Lisbon is now living within the income it generates by a mixture of painful but good housekeeping, and cost cutting.
Part of the problem was caused by the fact that, since 1981, Lisbon had lost 200,000 inhabitants, many businesses and jobs, while receipts had stood still for 25 years yet costs had gone up.
“For the credibility, dignity and financial agency ratings of our city, we have to pay what we owe and we are negotiating payment plans with our several hundred creditors,” António Costa said.
“This means that we will have to have enormous budgetary discipline over the next few years.”
The budget for 2008 has been slashed by 34 per cent, representing a cut of 300 million euros in expenditure and investment.
The good news was that Lisbon continued to be doing well in terms of tourism and large public and private construction projects such as the TGV, Cruise Ship Terminal, docks modernisation, and Lisbon International Airport.
Lisbon was the seventh best city in the world to hold a congress, passenger numbers at the airport had been up 8.8 per cent in 2007, and tourism has increased by 15 per cent in the same period and was set to grow by a projected 12 per cent in 2008.
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