Álvaro Araújo, mayor of Vila Real de Santo António (VRSA), in an interview with Sul Informação, analyzes the difficult financial situation he found in the municipality, when he took office last November. An audit of the Chamber's accounts since 2004 is revealing situations of poor resource management.
This is the second part of the extensive in-depth interview that the socialist mayor gave to our newspaper, the first since he was elected in the Municipal Councils last year.
Sul Informação – It has been in the Chamber for about nine months now. The VRSA Chamber has many problems, such as the largest debt per capita from the country. How did you find and how is the Chamber's financial situation at the moment?
Álvaro Araújo – We found the Chamber with a liability of 182 million euros, which is equivalent to a debt of 160 million. We found the Chamber in a very difficult situation, supervised by the FAM, preventing us from making investments. If we want to support a club, we cannot, we are prevented by the FAM. We are very limited in our action. It has not been easy.
SI – But did you find any surprises, something you weren't expecting?
AA - We found some surprises. for example, we had to spend one million euros to pay compensation – equivalent to wages, Caixa Geral de Aposentações and compensation itself – to an employee who was fired and who the court came to say was unfairly dismissed.
All instances proved the official right and the Chamber, over these 16 years, was always appealing and always losing.
Now they have given a deadline for the Municipality to integrate the worker and pay him all the amounts in question. And we are talking about 1 million euros, a sum that the Chamber did not have and that it had to find a way to have, because it was an order of the Court. It's just one example of the difficulties we've had.
SI – In terms of revenue from the Chamber, how are things going?
AA - We have improved, because there was a lot of revenue that was not collected either in terms of rent payments, occupation of public space, water bills even from the time when water was the responsibility of the Municipality. We are talking about around two million euros of invoices that have expired and that we had to declare them expired so that they would not be weighing on our budget.
We all have to understand that this issue will have to cease to exist, that we will have to collect rents, occupation of public space and retroactively.
But if all the problems were like the one with the recipe, we would be very well, because, in terms of the recipe, we can live perfectly. The problem is the liability we have.
SI – To find out how the Chamber's situation is, this executive ordered an internal audit. At what point is this audit?
AA - When the team that is managing the Municipality applied, it did so with a commitment: to carry out a survey of everything that has been spent over the last few years.
The PSD councilors, from the beginning, have been asking us for a list of the services we have contracted since we arrived here. As you know, public services are obliged to publish everything on BASE.Gov, but the councilors asked us to deliver a list. I said “very well”, but I asked the services for a list of services provided, only from 2004 until today.
Although this is not what the opposition councilors want, I told them: «not only will I give you the data of our administration, but I will also give you the data of your administration».
At the last meeting, I brought them a document in which the Socialist Party asked for the same, in 2016. And the answer of the PSD executive at the time had been: this is all in BASE.Gov. Well, what worked in 2016 no longer works now, on top of that the actors are the same…
What they didn't give to PS councilors in 2016, we are now going to give to everyone.
Because there is an important note here: all matters that go to the Chamber meeting are also sent by email to all members of the Municipal Assembly and to all the heads of the list of forces that have applied for the last Municipal Councils. Did the CDS have a candidate? He receives the elements, even if he has not chosen them. And here there were eight parties…everyone receives the information to know and to be able to give their opinion.
SI – But what does this audit consist of?
AA - In Audit, what we are doing is seeing where the money was being spent.
For example, water consumption: you can't imagine the number of water meters that were scattered throughout the municipality and that nobody knows who they belong to and that the Municipality pays… We are auditing all this and having them all turned off.
The Sports Complex had a domestic meter to do the irrigation and we paid 20 thousand euros a month… Who cares about that? Just think… The waters are private, you are using irrigation water as if it were domestic, paying sewage fees, etc., everything you have to pay on a normal bill. Out of 20, 9 euros is water, 11 is for other things.
We have holes in the sports complex, to help lower water consumption in irrigation, which were turned off. Since we arrived, we have put that system into operation and, at the moment, we have a consumption of around 500 euros, per month, of water, in the Sports Complex. See the difference… And this is just a detail.
It is this work that we are doing, we are revisiting the contracts of the past and we have come across some situations that, in a friendly way, I will call eccentric. One day we will send the population a report on what we have found.
SI – What is this Audit looking for?
AA - We are not looking for anything special, nor is that the aim. The objective is to make the current expenditure of the Municipality drop drastically and the revenue to increase.
We will charge the very low rents of 6 euros per month, which have not been charged for years.
The other day two young girls were here who wanted to stay with their grandmother's house and they even meet the conditions to do so, according to the regulation, which says that, when the person who lived there dies and the family members have been there for more than three years, they are entitled to stay with the house. But they have a debt of 25 thousand euros, that is, they never paid rent... And I said to the young women, both working: I have no problem with you guys keeping the house, now you have to pay the debt, you have to a payment plan.
This isn't my house, I'm managing a house that belongs to everyone. She said to them: your grandmother had a low income, didn't she pay, nor did anyone demand it?
SI – But these measures must not be very popular…
AA - Is it a popular measure? It sure isn't! Telling a businessman that he has to pay for the use of public space, which he never paid? Do you have a terrace? You have to pay! Isn't it fair that you pay? Of course, it would be much nicer to say, look, don't pay, that person would be eternally grateful.
Then they demand another type of animation, etc…but if they don't collaborate, how can we do it?
What is bad is that we have the Social Welfare Services working in a place without conditions, having the CPCJ in an old elementary school, with infiltrations, and having a Municipality building, with dignity, which is given to a company, which exploits it without pay absolutely nothing.
Of course, the company was not satisfied when it learned that it would have to abandon those facilities by the end of the year. This is a space at the back of the Library, given to a company that promotes paid leisure activities for children. We informed the entrepreneur that he will have to hand over the space to us.
Because we need to relocate our Social Welfare Services, or the Health Sub-Division, which is in the Fire Department's facilities, which doesn't make sense. The CPCJ also needs a space with dignity, in addition to the fact that we are going to host the Social Action competencies until the end of the year, and we also have to have a place for these employees.
There is also an association that has already been informed that it will have to leave the space, because we need it to put a kind of social supermarket there.
This job is not nice, but we have to do it!
SI – And what other situations have already been uncovered by the audit?
AA – Another thing that is on the table and everyone knows, they don't want to hear us: it has to do with the first building of the construction of the Pombaline city, the old Customs building. When we arrived, that building was handed over to the company that took over the Hotel Guadiana.
We went to visit those facilities. Do you know what we found there? Potato sacks, mattresses, anyway, that was a warehouse. A site like that that was refurbished with public money…I was shocked!
A building like that has to be at the service of Vila Real de Santo António! You can't have sacks of potatoes in there, with all the respect I have for signed agreements that are not being fulfilled.
When the works were carried out on that former Customs building, it was intended to house the Municipal Assembly there, but it was nothing more than the idea.
At the very least, we have to put that structure at the service of the Municipality and the population. It has huge potential!
In the case of the former Customs building, we went to see the agreement that existed for that. What did you foresee? Is it being fulfilled or not? Is not!
SI – There have also been complaints about paid parking in the city, not only from residents, but also from traders. Is it to continue?
AA - We want to do away with the parking fee in Vila Real de Santo António, was a promise of our candidacy. We already have work done in this direction. We are certain that we will succeed, because that would be a great victory for this Municipality.
When there is a charged establishment, it is to regulate parking in cities. Not here: it was just to collect, it was to make a profit. But for whom? To the Municipality? The question stands.
Here in the city, in the historic area, on the riverfront, of course the streets have to have paid parking, but it can be at other times. After 19:00 does it make any sense to have to pay? Do people want to come to restaurants, enjoy the river, the historic area, and are they worried because they have to pay until midnight?
In Vila Real, anywhere in the city, there is paid parking, including in the Municipal Market area. But if you go to Continente or Intermarché, it's free. People go where?
It makes sense to have a paid car park on the sea front of Monte Gordo. I think it does! But at those prices? Why isn't there a weekly or monthly price for those who want to relax there?
We have to monetize, but in favor of the municipality.
Another example, Cacela Velha: there is a huge car park there. Why not put that park as charged? This would even help regulate the number of people who go there. We are talking about an area in the Ria Formosa Natural Park. It should have a counter and only x number of people could go to those beaches daily.
Charged parking will affect who goes there. We have to be careful, but we're not!
The audit also found these little things.
SI – When will the audit be ready?
AA - The report will be out soon. What we're doing is a serious audit and that's what we're going to show people.
We weren't looking for anything illegal, no! We have seen what exists.