WHICH TO DO FIRST. The first of a series of public hearings on the proposed P50 billion budget for 2023 opened Monday (December 5, 2022) with the City Council committee on budget and finance locked in an intense discussion on the dilemma of what to do first.

Should they review now the appropriations of about 27 departments and offices of the City Government even if fund sources of the P50 billion to pay them were still unsure or unclear? Shouldn't they decide first on how much to spend next year and agree on the tax increases for it?

Obviously, the spending money will depend on how much the treasurer's office can collect, which in turn will depend largely on the approval of the proposed omnibus tax ordinance, on top of changes in collection strategy.

The hearings are supposed to hear the proposals from each department and office and then approve them with or without cuts.

The problem: basis for its decision is P50 billion, which most councilors think is unrealistic because it still has to approve the omnibus tax increases, the major source of money for next year's budget.

TALK WITH MAYOR MIKE. Committee members and other City Council members present at Monday's public hearing seemed to have reached some consensus: continue with the budget hearings and at the same time send representatives to talk with Mayor Michael Rama on the budget amount and fund sourcing. Multi-tasking is apparently required by the heavy load on the Sanggunian's plate: the P50 billion 2023 budget and the omnibus tax increases.

Majority Floor Leader Jocelyn Pesquera hinted that next year's budget could be reduced, which would necessarily follow lower rates in the tax increase.

A "bicameral" approach to the issue may also find out if the mayor is just hyping up his request for the big bucks but may settle for less than P50 billion. The compromise figure could range from P20 billion to 30 billion.

GOING AGAINST THE PLAN on big budget and high taxes is what looks like a bipartisan opposition to the impending huge burden on taxpayers. The multiple bundling of the increases, withheld by the City Government for many years, looks scary enough, even for Barug councilors, not to qualify their support to it.

Atty. Jerone Castillo, Mayor Rama's adviser on fiscal affairs, and Treasurer Officer-in-Charge Ivy Reyes offered explanations that didn't quite fly:

[1] They said they'd raise the needed funds but didn't refute Councilor Pesquera's compelling argument: since 2020 and 2021 collections fell short of target, how could they assure efficiency next year, with the problems on working force and tax procedures, along with the residuals of pandemic and super-typhoon?

[2] The new tax increases, even if approved this year, couldn't bring in the money at once because, Pesquera said, notices of assessment have to be made, subject to protest and possible litigation.

[3] They talk of expanding the tax base, citing that so many would-be taxpayers aren't being taxed, and yet push the tax increases as if it were the sole solution. Can't they be more efficient in collecting under the existing ordinance, even as they stagger the raising of rates?

'HOW MUCH MONEY DO WE HAVE?' At an earlier Sanggunian session, the growing sentiment seemed to be this: the "more than ten-fold increases" in real estate taxes alone would be unbearable to many constituents the lawmakers represent. How much increase will they approve? They need to decide that first before determining how much the departments and offices plan to spend.

That's basic in budgeting, the councilors in effect said. In a local government or in a household: "you budget what you're sure to earn."

Councilor Mary Ann de los Santos said, "We can't tackle the budget if we don't ascertain fund sourcing. We must know how much money we can spend. We go to the basic." She called the P50 budget "high-faluting." Councilor Rey Gealon called for more information on which to base the City Council decision. Councilor Pesquera at one point suggested they return the budget proposals to the mayor for revision.

Monday's public hearing was a committee-level session, with chairman Noel Wenceslao presiding, but it was open to all Sanggunian members, including VM Garcia.

The attendance of majority of the Sanggunian members suggested that the working plan of holding the budget hearings and talking with the mayor at the same time most likely will be pursued by the City Council en banc.

RISK OF HEAD-CHOPPING. In the opinion of VM Garcia, the P50 billion budget wouldn't be a big deal. "So what?" was how the vice mayor said he answered media inquiries. If the city treasury can't collect the appropriated amount, Garcia said, the mayor can pick the projects for which there's money and put off the unfunded others until 2024 and 2025.

"So what?" the Sanggunian presiding officer repeated. Except for two things: (first) taint on the job record of the treasurer and her people, which Councilor Pesquera said could cause the firing of the treasury staff; and (second) public perception of poor City Council work, which Minority Floor Leader Nestor Archival Sr. said would make the councilors look bad to the public.

Pesquera said it would put at risk the careers of the city treasurer and her personnel under a purported rule that punishes poor performance for two collection terms.

The councilor asked Treasurer Reyes if she was aware of the rule and if they were they willing to have their “heads chopped off.” Reyes said she was not, but kept unanswered the question of heads rolling ("figuratively of course," Pesquera conceded).