Explainer: Cebu City Council passed P10-B 2021 budget with P3.8-B Covid funds still not liquidated. But demand for City Hall to account and be transparent persists.

Pachico A. Seares
·6 min read

THE informal alliance between the ruling party Barug and opposition BOPK in the Cebu City Council -- which Vice Mayor Mike Rama has touted as “the fiscalizers” and “no rubber stamps” -- had made it clear that the passage of the general appropriation ordinance for 2021 would depend on the mayor first giving an accounting of the P3.5 billion entrusted to him for “anti-Covid response.”

VM Rama had repeatedly said at the Council sessions since early November that the liquidation was essential, the money placed in Mayor Edgardo Labella’s hands in three tranches was "huge (‘dakong kwarta’)," and the public would expect City Hall to tell them how it was spent.

The liquidation was obviously negotiable: it could be put off again, as it had repeatedly been since the first one billion pesos was granted way back in March and Councilor Alvin Dizon (BOPK) asked for its accounting before any more funds would be released and, later, for the digital release of the information to the public. As suggested by presiding officer Rama to show that the “fiscalizers” were serious, the Council created a special committee to review the report and report what’s wrong with it.

As it turned out, the liquidation was apparently the first casualty in the scramble of trade-offs before the Council approved Wednesday (December 23) a P10 billion budget for next year.

Liquidation was not mentioned at all in that last session before the holiday break. Councilor Dizon told SunStar on the same day: “Wala pa gihapon gi-submit nila ang liquidation. (The special committee was created) but nothing happened.”

ATTEMPTS TO COMPLY. The office of the city mayor had tried to comply. The problem that it told the lawmakers was locating the purchase orders, which Minority Leader Noel Archival didn’t find entirely believable.

The last word was that the mayor’s office would submit them in batches, starting with the POs on rice and canned goods and maybe the “tu-ob” equipment, which attracted inquisitive councilors most, and the special committee would go over the documents as they came.

That did not work as the committee did not deliver because perhaps the mayor’s office also did not deliver. And the budget sailed through the mill after it supposedly met the tests of being “need-based,” Rama’s criterion, and “optimum (result)-oriented,” standard of Councilor Raymond Garcia, chairman of the committee on budget and finance.

WHAT THEY ASKED FOR. From his serial annotations of what was said and done during sessions and the budget committee hearings, the vice mayor listed requirements for a “need-based” appropriation ordinance:

[1] Must be directed at the pandemic; [2] must address the flood problems; [3] must deal with social concerns and food production; and [4] must wipe out the city’s loan on the South Road Properties.

The demand for “slashes and cuts” – which VM Rama replaced with the non-violent-sounding word “rationalized” – resulted in the 2021 budget being reduced by P800 million over Labella’s proposal and by P400 million over the 2020 appropriations.

Specific amounts lopped off included amounts not really needed next year such as P250 million for phase three of the traffic system’s artificial intelligence since phase two has not yet begun; or P100 million from an economic recovery program that still has an unspent P100 million; or the P155 million cut from P280 million for the renovation of the legislative building since the work can be done in phases.

SUPERFICIAL WOUNDS. The changes have not hurt plans of Mayor Labella who declared he was satisfied with the overall result. The slashes and cuts were superficial wounds and won’t affect any of the mayor’s programs.

About P21.5 million for the purchase of new vehicles for three offices was scrapped, mainly on the prodding of Dizon. But the concessions were small compared to the totality of resources available for spending by the Barug administration in the year before election year 2022.

Rama, who encouraged, if he didn’t lead, the cheering for the changes, was less noisy after his loud insistence that the remaining balance of the South Road Properties lots sale proceeds, about P3.5 billion or so, be not touched (“di ko mosugot”).

He agreed that the budget be sourced to SRP funds upon seeing in the ordinance a P271 million outlay for the reclamation project loan, with the balance in supplemental budgets before 2022.

UNANIMOUS PASSAGE. Everybody seemed happy with the 2021 budget, including the mayor who is thus expected to sign it.

It was a unanimous decision by the City Council. No division of the house, no roll-call vote. Dizon made two collateral motions but they involved acts after passage of the ordinance and he did not object to its approval.

Each side got something. Barug, through the mayor, got what it wanted. BOPK presented an image of responsible fiscalizing, limited in number as it is, and was thrown morsels in its way. Example: P10 million cut from the mayor’s P30-million “confidential” fund.

Rama succeeded in having the City Council and himself noticed and recognized by the mayor, who at the last minute apparently haggled with his vice mayor.

Doing the hard work quietly and efficiently was budget committee chief Raymond Garcia who had to push the mayor’s proposal while struggling to appease the minority’s demands and presiding officer Rama’s preaching from his rostrum.

UPROAR OVER ACCOUNTING is not over though.

The amount of un-liquidated funds will grow with more money poured into the “anti-Covid response” purse. Into the P3.5-billion pile will go more funds, under the 2021 budget, including P400-P500 million for vaccines, P796 million aid to barangays and P565 million for social welfare and services. Plus the supplemental budgets which the new year’s twists and turns might bring, given the uncertainty over the public health crisis.

Those are expected to revive the call for liquidation of funds within the Council and outside. Already, the local chapter of Freedom from Debt Coalition made an outcry. Calling themselves members of civil society organizations in Cebu, the group said they were “totally alarmed” over what happened at the budget hearings of the City Council.

The people, it said, deserve to know “how the pandemic funds were spent and if these expenses are justified.”

It hoped the people would be clarified about the spending before the 2021 budget was passed. They were not but they still can be.

HOPE, CRY FOR HELP. Dizon’s collateral motions were (a) for the executive department “to regularly submit” a report on its expenses under the 2021 budget and (b) for civil society members of the Cebu City Development Council to “actively monitor” the execution of the budget.

The first indicates that the councilor has not lost hope for a transparent and responsible executive branch. The second sounds like a cry for help from outside the Sanggunian.