Taxpayers taken hostage“Come what may, the city of Seoul will defend free day care!” That’s a slogan from an advertisement commuters in the capital may come across in buses and in subway stations. The universal free day care program is in jeopardy due to lack of funds, but the city administration wants to keep it alive. It has resorted to an ad campaign to put pressure on the government of President Park Geun-hye to contribute more subsidies for free day care. At the same time, the city is campaigning for public support to sustain day care and home care subsidies for all children under five years of age.
The campaigners in the Seoul city government and city council cite the rights of Seoul citizens to challenge the central government. It was the government that decided to provide free day care in the first place as a part of an ambitious plan to upgrade the social welfare system, but it is the citizens of Seoul who pay for most of it. The Seoul administration shoulders 80 percent of the financing for day care programs while the balance comes from district councils and the central government. The government has already broken its promise to local and district administrations that they won’t have to pay extra for the funding. The Seoul government and its citizens could feel they have all been taken for granted.
But is that really true? Paying taxes is a duty for all citizens whether they live in Seoul or other areas. A Seoul citizen is helping to finance accessible day care services for children in Seoul. It’s not actually a free benefit but a government service financed by individual taxpayers. The problem is that not everybody needs that particular service or benefit from increased welfare spending.
To taxpayers it should not matter which government - the central government or Seoul - spends their money. The manifesto that a promise will be kept at any cost is rarely to be believed. The central and Seoul governments are fighting over money. They are defending their own budgets as if it was their own money. Even worse, toddlers and their parents have been taken hostage in the dispute.
Civil servants are paid by taxpayers whether they work in central or local government offices. If they want to fight about tax jurisdictions, why separate the central and local governments? Instead of wrangling, they should spend their time putting their heads together to assess how effective and constructive the universal day care program is and how they can fix any problems. How can they expect to get public support if all they are concerned about is money?
Before they waste our time with promises to save the program at any cost, they should fix it. The Seoul city administration can first of all revise its multi-billion-dollar infrastructure project to build a light rail system across and around the capital. It could save money by scaling down allowances and salaries of the mayor and other city employees. Who would buy their talk about lack of money when officials make no cost-savings that affect their own incomes?
The central government also cannot avoid criticism in the debate. Its welfare policy has raised smoke and dust and general trouble already. It’s high time it reverses various campaign promises in local areas and reconsiders a universal welfare policy without universal tax increases. The problem is only going to worsen if it drags its feet.
Lastly, a word of advice should be given to civil servants in local governments. Most senior officials have all passed state civil service exams. They could be transferred to the central government. They are unwise to blindly follow orders from the district administration and get involved in fights between the central and local governments. This advice goes out to civil servants in all local governments and not just Seoul city.
Civil servants should serve the people who pay their salaries. The general public does not care where civil servants work. But they won’t tolerate them squandering or fighting over tax money. Officials in the Seoul administration should think twice about who is their real boss before they form a joint front with their mayor to fight the central government.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
BY Nahm Yoon-ho