Fiscal sleepwalking

BAR NONE - Ian Manticajon - The Freeman

The proposed ?100-billion budget of the Cebu City government has been met with heavy criticism. Cebu City Councilor Mary Ann de Los Santos accurately captured this sentiment when she reminded her colleagues in the City Council, “Once upon a time, we were stupid when we approved the ?50 billion. We wouldn’t want to be called stupid twice.”

If only the city councilors listened to their colleagues, opposition Councilor De Los Santos and Majority Floor Leader Jocelyn Pesquera, they would certainly not appear imprudent again this year. In the last regular session, De Los Santos asked for Pesquera's opinion on a 'sound budget', leading to Pesquera's recommendation of ?20 billion for 2024, significantly lower than the “not more than ?50 billion” recommended by the City Council and far below the ?100 billion proposed by the executive department.

De Los Santos advocated for a practical budget, suggesting the possibility of supplemental budgets as needed in 2024. She criticized the excessively high budget proposals, recalling a previous instance where approving a high budget led to criticisms.

Based on the report from the City Council Committee on Budget and Finance, it confirms the perception that the city sleepwalked into approving a ?50-billion budget for 2023 last year. The committee's findings revealed that only ?8.48 billion of this budget was used from January to November. The obvious reason is that only around that same amount was actually collected. With a daunting ?41.52 billion still to be collected in the final month of December, it appears the city must engage in some serious fiscal sleepwalking to meet such an ambitious collection target --in their dreams.

On a more serious note, I have a sense that no one really took the previous ?50 billion budget for 2023 of Cebu City seriously. Everyone knew, including its proponents, that such an amount was based on unrealistic estimates of revenue collection. It seemed at that time that everyone just wanted to get it over with and appease the mayor with a budget that obviously looks good only on paper.

But the ambitious projections were all for show, a spectacle of words and clever-sounding acronyms for tax collection programs like the so-called "SAYAW sa Buhis" as if we can dance our way into revenue reforms and collecting more taxes from the already-burdened businesses and residents. That's how low governance has sunk these days.

Wake up Cebu City! Sound local government budgeting involves projecting revenues right, putting the community first, being clear and open, planning ahead, using resources well and wisely, staying flexible, handling risks, and following rules and advisories as laid down by agencies like the Bureau of Local Government Finance.

The apathy and disengagement of citizens, as is now seen in the deliberations of our proposed annual budget, are unhealthy for the city. We’re greeted with a spectacle of interesting sound bites and colorful words from the city administration, but I have yet to hear about public hearings, community surveys, and meetings with civic society, business groups, and other stakeholders, conducted early in the budgeting process.

The current budget fiasco in Cebu City is a glaring example of the consequences when people’s engagement is sidelined. The 'fiscal sleepwalking' we witnessed, where a ?100-billion budget is being proposed for 2024 and a ?50-billion budget for 2023 was approved last year, all without realistic revenue projections, could have been averted with meaningful citizen input. Instead of the spectacle of rhetoric and clever acronyms which trivialize the serious business of revenue collection and reform, we need a more inclusive, realistic, and responsive budgeting process for the future of our city.

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