CITIZENS are not yet full accustomed to Slovakia’s higher territorial units, its self-governing regions. There is still much work to be done to explain to residents of the regions what the powers and authorities of these eight self-governments are, as well as their achievements. This low level of knowledge is partly attributable to the short existence of this level of government as well as to the somewhat limited powers they currently hold. But after eight years of work, leaders of the regional governments think they have enough experience and the ability to assume more powers and responsibilities, enabling citizens in the regions to decide more directly about issues that touch them on a regular basis.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Zdenko Trebuľa, the re-elected president of Košice Self-Governing Region, about his plans for his new term, about the biggest problems facing Košice Region, and about his opinions on comprehensive reform of public administration.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): In November 2009 you were re-elected as the president of Košice Self-Governing Region. What are your main plans for the next four years?
Zdenko Trebuľa (ZT): During the previous four years we elaborated a number of important concept materials in which we set parameters for the future development of Košice Region. We now know which ideas to draw attention to so that they have the desired effect. These concept materials set our future headings in education, the social sector, regional development, and culture.
We repaired one-quarter of the region’s road infrastructure under our administration, or 552 kilometres of second- and third-category roads, increasing the share of roads in excellent condition from zero to 26 percent. We created a functional system of specialised education and rationalised the network of schools, which resulted in annual savings of €1.3 million. We also preserved the original extent of public transport and bought new buses for commuter transport. We increased funds allocated from our budget for social services by 54 percent, to almost €83 million, compared with 2004. We obtained the national credit rating of Aa1 with a stable outlook and the international rating of A3 with a stable outlook. During the last four years our office did not need to resolve any kind of scandal and we did not need to settle any problems with violations of law. Our office kept within its budget during each year of the previous term.
A priority for the upcoming months will be to stabilise the four hospitals under our administration. We must keep them at their current level, which we are unable to do without a strategic partner. We will continue in reconstruction of second- and third-category roads and we will pressure the owners of first-category roads and highways to invest in their repair and construction. Also very important are the development of an integrated transport system, which we are working on, and the harmonisation of bus and rail transport.
For our secondary schools we want to continue in close cooperation with employers and focus on specialised education. So far our plan has proven itself to be correct and effective.
I believe that it will also be met with a positive response from parents and students who will realise that professional training offers valuable prospects. This kind of education at excellently-equipped schools will compete with general education. We want to focus development of our region on the use of renewable energy resources, IT and innovation. Over its two years of operation, Košice IT Valley has shown that this region has a great opportunity to draw investors directly to this sector – one which does not require an asphalt highway.
The Košice Self-Governing Region is one of the founding members of this association and from the responses of experts we clearly see that this was a good decision which we will continue to support. Even though self-governing regions’ offices have no competencies in tourism, we keep perceiving tourism as a great prospect for this region. It will be necessary to join the interests of all stakeholders doing business in tourism – not only hoteliers, owners of restaurants, and producers of wine or other foods but also cultural institutions, tourism associations and self-governments. I believe that the regional tourism board, which started to operate earlier this year, will play a significant role in this. For tourism we also want to use the regional project called Terra Incognita, through which our office participates in the project of the European Capital of Culture, which Košice will become in 2013.
TSS: What are the most urgent problems of Košice Region? What solutions are you proposing?
ZT: We face an extremely difficult and complicated year. It may be even more demanding than the previous one. Last year we had to cope with a situation in which our revenues were €16.5 million lower than planned. It has shown that our foresight and conservativeness when designing our budget were well-advised. The gaps in revenue in this year’s budget will also require very prudent and well-thought out decisions by our office about where and on what our budgetary funds will be spent. This was the reason why, in my pre-election campaign, I did not promise people anything that was not realisable. To the contrary, I was saying that a difficult period was coming, that there would not be surplus funds, and we would have to think properly about how to spend our resources.
TSS: What influence has the economic crisis had on Košice Region and the office of Košice Self-Governing Region? What measures are you proposing, or have already implemented, to soften the impact of the crisis?
ZT: We are not starting from zero. We have a lot of experience to be able to foresee what we are facing. But we should keep our feet firmly on the ground. The crisis will not enable us to expand and we will focus primarily on dampening the impacts of the economic crisis on the region and keeping at least the level of services so far provided by our office. Capital expenditures will be minimal and thus it will be primarily up to us to keep facilities under the auspices of our office running. Savings measures will have an effect on many.
Simply said, we can only cover ourselves with the blanket that we already have and we will have to cope with the fact that our legs will be sticking out. Our office will not be the only one in this situation as towns and villages also have to navigate through this difficult period of time. This is why we must use the structural funds from the European Union as effectively as possible; it will be very important for us. We must now focus all our forces on drawing EU funds because these are the only resources available to us for now.
TSS: How do you perceive the current extent of decentralisation in Slovakia, along with the current powers and duties of self-governing regions?
ZT: This is a question of an inevitable comprehensive reform of public administration. The notions I had about the operation of self-governing regions four years ago and those that I pursue now are different. I think that self-governing regions are prepared and are able to take over more responsibilities, which would make the lives of people in the regions easier. But first self-governments must have the powers which give them the opportunity and the right to participate not only in the preparation of strategic plans but also in pursuing their accomplishment. For now, we do not have these powers. This means that our land plans, proposals, regulations and visions do not need to be respected as they are not binding. Neither business entities and institutions nor private individuals are required to respect them. Efforts to mine uranium in Jahodná, close to Košice, or perlite in the Tokaj region are good examples of this. The time has come for new reforms in regional politics so that people in the regions can decide about their future in those affairs which touch them directly. For now, all these decisions are made centrally. If this reform does not take place during the upcoming election term of the Slovak parliament, public administration will fall into a crisis. Regions need greater powers and authority. If we want to move forward, and if we should bear the responsibility, we must also have the tools to actually carry it out.
I am deeply convinced that public administration reform is not only an issue of regional administration. Many specialised organs of state administration also require reform. If local administration, that is, our towns and villages, can take over the performance of certain areas of state administration, then the regional administration may operate as a level for appeals.
Citizens still do not perceive regional administration as proximate with the first level – local administration in towns and municipalities. This is actually quite natural because towns and villages have histories of several hundreds of years while our regional level is entering just the ninth year of its existence. People are still getting used to it. In spite of this, higher territorial units are important because they have competencies directly associated with citizens’ lives – schools, social facilities, cultural institutions, district hospitals, second- and third-category roads, regional development, and so forth. Citizens should know much more about what we do. In this area we have a lot of work to do. The media also bears a certain responsibility in this, because they only rarely inform about the good things we have done. But it is also our responsibility because we must talk with people more about our work and results.
TSS: Slovakia suffers from regional disparities. Does this problem also affect Košice Region? In which areas do you perceive the biggest disparities and what solutions do you propose?
ZT: There are fields in which our region lags behind; for example in the development of infrastructure and the number of investments which have come to Košice Region over the last 10 years. The main reason behind the latter is insufficient infrastructure and especially the missing connections in the highway network. Its construction, however, as well as the construction of first-category roads, is in the state’s power. But the situation is changing from month to month, from week to week.
We have done a lot in secondary education and thus have advanced to among the leaders in this sector in Slovakia. In close cooperation with vocational schools and technical colleges and employers, we have launched a total of six professional training centres. We will continue creating additional centres based on the requirements of employers and schools.
We also must continue repairing roads under our administration. Second- and third-class roads in some districts have not been repaired for 20, 30 or even 40 years. The state simply transferred them to us, in very bad condition, without providing a single euro for this purpose.
So far we have invested over €75 million into repairs and reconstruction of our road infrastructure. But if revenues to our region from taxes keep decreasing, it will be difficult to secure funds for repairs. Moreover, we are afraid that there will be a negative impact from the introduction of the electronic toll collection system, resulting in more intensive traffic on regional roads which are not suitable for such heavy trucks. We are pointing out this risk of damage to not only unrepaired roads, but also to our already renovated road infrastructure.
8. Feb 2010 at 0:00 | Jana Liptáková