EXPLAINER. Demand for Cebu City mayor to liquidate P2.9 billion Covid funds: partisan noise that distracts?

Screenshots from Facebook pages of Mayor Edgardo Labella and Cebu City Vice Mayor's Office

FUNDS IN MAYOR'S HANDS. The Cebu City Council has appropriated a total of P3.9 billion in supplemental budgets for Mayor Edgardo Labella to use mainly for the Covid-19 pandemic: namely, SB #1, P1 billion; SB #2, P1 billion; and SB #3, P1.9 billion. Almost P3 billion of that was for the health emergency; a few other purposes merely piggy-backed on the extra budget.

The funds are in effect advances, with the mayor given a lot of discretion to pick specific projects and decide how much to spend for each. The public health crisis has been the all-embracing justification for the near-blanket authority to spend.

Half of SB #2, approved in March, was used for food assistance. SB #3 of P1.9 billion was a mix of purposes, which raised objection from the BOPK minority but was still passed because (one) Barug dominates the City Council and (two) the councilors, including those from the opposition BOPK, wouldn't want to be seen as obstructionists during the emergency.

The latest fund outlay was broken down thus, Councilor Alvin Dizon told SunStar: P500 million for food relief; P322 million, hazard pay; P450 million, seniors cash subsidy; P55 million for PWD program; P100 million, city hospitalization assistance and medicines program; and P500 million, CCMC construction. The outlay for seniors and persons with disabilities and the P500 million additional money for building the city hospital, which still cannot help combat the plague, are the non-Covid sore thumbs.

Overall, the ready funds must have been enormously useful to Mayor Labella, as similar advances should be to any mayor or governor leading an LGU campaign against the pandemic. The cash is given up front, with a lot of discretion on how to use it.

LIQUIDATION BEFORE NEW FUNDING. The mayor is supposed to liquidate the first cash-out before getting fresh funds.

Still, Mayor Labella got the second, and the third, cash outlay without having liquidated the first. It was also not known if the initial P15 million granted in February to the city health department was already liquidated. Labella had promised that the department would account for the money, up to the literal last peso.

City Hall reporters may recall the May 22 request of the City Council for liquidation, along with its invitation to the mayor to brief the councilors on how the anti-Covid campaign was being waged. The mayor, a news report said, didn't appear before the City Council but asked someone else to give the briefing. The new request, passed last Friday by the City Council, indicates that no liquidation has yet been done since the June 17 grant of P1.9 billion under SB #3.

The health crisis has actually occupied the mayor's energy and time, which seems to have also provided excuse to defer his crisis report and fund accounting. Vice Mayor Mike Rama, in a moment of self-pity, once publicly complained that Mayor Labella would consult the "shunned" City Council only when the chief executive's office needed money.

NOT A PARTISAN OUTCRY. The City Council request for accounting cannot be said to be a strategy of BOPK to embarrass the mayor. It cannot be lumped with the occasional potshots on social media from the opposition, asking about allegedly diverted chickens or allegedly overpriced "tuob" kits. The August 7 resolution was passed unanimously with councilors from both party aisles supporting the move. Who'd vote for hiding or delaying the report?

The resolution, authored by Councilor Dizon, pushed for "transparency and accountability," with the mayor being asked to give a "detailed and itemized expenditure breakdown" of the P2.9-billion Covid funds.

The City Council doesn't want the report confined to the Sanggunian. The resolution asks that the accounting be published on the city government website and the mayor's official Facebook page and in local newspapers.

EMERGENCY AS EXCUSE. The pandemic has been accepted by many people as excuse for shortcuts or speed in appropriating and spending public money -- and in the accounting of expenses.

Unfortunately, as current Senate hearings on the Philhealth fund looting show, the emergency can be used to delay uncovering of a crime or to expedite its cover-up.

The City Council is not saying or implying larceny, with respect to city funds for the pandemic. But, the resolution says, "ensuring fiscal transparency and public accountability are crucial and should be faithfully observed and upheld especially in emergency situations."


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