Estonia’s administrative reform: what does it mean for the little guy?
The Ministry of Finance’s map of possible future mergers of local governments across the country paints a motley picture of a country full of parishes too small to remain independent under the stipulations of the new administrative reform. Those who go willingly in merging with neighboring parishes will be rewarded handsomely for their cooperation; those who don’t will be forced to merge anyway come the new year.
According to the latest round of administrative reforms, the new government-mandated minimum population required for an independent administrative unit is 5,000, although the suggested minimum population is actually 11,000 residents per local government. Extra effort made in meeting the latter number will be rewarded as well — in addition to the 100€ per resident already to be paid out to merging parishes, any local governments formed by merger to newly surpass the 11,000-resident mark will be awarded an additional 500,000€ merger grant as well.
The grant, however, is only available until January 1, 2017, after which any remaining parishes not meeting minimum size requirements will be forced into merging regardless.
In certain situations, such as with parishes with much smaller neighbors, the new stipulation all but requires that the small parishes all merge with one another and possibly with their larger neighbor as well, as that is the only way to guarantee that all of the parishes involved would meet the 5,000-minimum requirement.
This is the case in Hiiumaa, for example, where the island’s largest parish, Hiiu parish, would only need the addition of one of its neighboring parishes to surpass the 5,000 mark, but no two remaining parishes combined would be able to meet the requirement as well.
The parishes of Saaremaa are similarly planning to merge into one big parish, with the exception of the neighboring island of Muhu, which, like Vormsi, can take advantage of an exception that will be made for small maritime islands that do not wish to merge local governments with any island or mainland neighbors.
The exception will not extend to the country’s smallest and poorest local governing body on the island of Piirissaare, however, because, being located in Lake Peipus on the country’s eastern border, it does not fit the “maritime” requirement. Räpina parish in nearby Põlva County has already extended Piirissaare, which currently belongs under the jurisdiction of Tartu County, an offer to merge; the island parish has yet to respond.
Who isn’t talking merger?
The Ministry of Finance’s map of mergers includes a few white patches reflecting parishes not currently involved in any merger negotiations, many of which involve bigger population centers and surrounding areas. Viljandi parish, one of the most noticeable patches on the map, was already the product of a 2013 merger of four parishes surrounding the independent city of Viljandi.
Areas surrounding the northeastern city of Narva are likewise not discussing any mergers, and Kadrina parish in neighboring Lääne-Viru County, just a hair shy of the required minimum population at 4,959, is holding out for now as well.
Take it from someone with experience
According to Mikk Lõhmus, mayor of Lääne-Nigula parish, which was formed in the 2013 merger of Oru, Risti and Taebla parishes, everyone has the same fears regarding administrative reform, but makes different assumptions about it, and so it is difficult to give uniform advice regarding how best to go about joining forces.
As Lääne-Nigula parish has been considered a successful example of a parish merger, Lõhmus was called upon to advise on the administrative reform. In his experience, primary concerns over the reform included whether schools, kindergartens and libraries would be closed as a result, in some cases killing off the last shreds of central parish activity and ultimately leading to their total marginalization. “We retained all four existing kindergartens and schools,” Lõhmus countered, “And actually established a new youth center in Risti as well.”
Another fear was that the previous smaller parishes would be at a disadvantage when local government elections were held with one combined list of candidates — that their representatives would not even make it onto the parish council. “Representatives from each former parish made it onto the council, and in fact, the proportional weight of previously smaller parishes in local government was even a bit greater than others,” confirmed Lõhmus.
A parish is not a social assistance program
Yet another fear was over the possibility of people working for the good of the parish losing their jobs. Lõhmus, however, looked on the bright side: “We did optimize our work, which led to savings,” he said. “There was a lot of duplication, particularly in support services. For example, each parish had its own repairman, and and a number of accountants on the payroll. But so many aren’t necessary — other things can be done with this money. IT solutions can also be used to fulfill a number of functions previously handled by people. For example, the kindergarten cook will no longer have to take the time to calculate caloric intake every month — a computer program does that now.”
“We have helped people find other work within the parish, but it is clear that there will not be enough work to go around for everyone within the parish structure anymore,” continued Lõhmus. “But I do not think that a parish should be a social assistance program anyway.”
Lõhmus, on his part, was in favor of making as few exceptions as possible, and considered the creation of 50-60 local governments total across Estonia to be optimal. “It would be ideal if there were as few exceptions as possible, or else everyone will begin to think that they should qualify as an exception.”
His own parish, Lääne-Nigula, will be facing yet another merger this year, as it has yet to hit the 5,000-resident minimum.
Time is up in just 290 days — after that, the state government will begin merge local governments by force and as it pleases. Parish councils have their work cut out for them this spring.