Külli Taro: Rights and obligations of local governments in the mobility era

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Külli Taro. Source: ERR

In cases where streets are not cleared of snow, the question of which local government has failed to perform its tasks is not difficult to answer. Things are much more complicated regarding the rights and obligations of local governments when people who tend to move around need to be taken care of instead of real estate or territory, Külli Taro finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Finding a school for children is a good reminder of the importance of one's registered place of residence. It determines the local government's income tax share, while other forms of income local governments see from the state budget are also tied to number of residents. The local government is obligated to offer public services to registered residents, including school places for children.

The Supreme Court found in a decision from 2019 that local governments are only obligated to offer services to those residents who really live in the municipality as people are obligated to make sure their population register data is accurate. The court found that this will also motivate people to provide correct information. Courts have reaffirmed this principle also in matters of allocating school places. However, neither the legislator nor courts have phrased clear principles of how to determine one's actual place of residence.

There can be only one official registered place of residence. Even though the population register offers the chance of adding an additional place of residence, this does not affect where taxes go and does not obligate the local government to offer services. The additional address was useful in the coronavirus emergency situation where it gave people permission to access the islands.

Court practice mainly concerns cases where people have not provided the state with accurate information. But what to do in situations where people really do live in several places? Which data is correct? Can a person be trapped between two local governments if both find that they live elsewhere? Is it fair to people when local governments prefer those who have lived in their territory longer? Or even tie benefits to the person registering as an official resident by a certain date? Woe to those who decide to move to the city of rural municipality later.

The Estonian Human Development Report from last year suggests that modern way of life is characterized by mobility and multinationalism. A lot of people own two homes. People are increasingly active in several local governments and even countries.

Remote working and studying that really took off in the conditions of the pandemic have turned traditional way of life on its head altogether. In a situation where work and studies have largely moved online, it really does not matter whether you sit down behind a computer in Lustivere, Mustamäe or Cape Town.

Current principles on which local governments' obligations and funding are based largely come from a time when people were far more settled. Life, work and children's education all took place in more or less the same place. A family was far more likely to be connected to a single place. Tax revenue from working people helped local governments take care of children and families.

From which local government should people seek public services and how to distribute tax revenue in the new situation? Being active in several locations requires a more flexible administrative organization.

The idea of people registering several permanent places of residence has been proposed on several occasion. This would also mean local governments sharing taxes. The reaction by local governments and the ministry has always been sensibly practical. People would have to decide the distribution of tax revenue and obligations between different local governments. And answer the question of where would the person be able to realize their democratic right to vote.

More attention is being paid to decentralization of public services in post-administrative-territorial reform Estonia. There is talk of local governments' fiscal and organizational autonomy. However, the more decentralized a country's administrative organization, the more important borders of local governments become. This does not fit in with the trends of mobility and multinationalism. If a person's life is borderless, we need to make sure administrative order does not start redrawing those lines in an artificial manner. While cooperation between local governments is no doubt important, it is not a magic wand. Cooperation can only work if it benefits both sides.

In summary, the central issue is whether to have a quick and easy administrative order or one that is based on the needs of the person. This is another opportunity for Estonia to blaze a trail for others and set an innovative example.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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