Anything that can unite Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party lawmakers or city councilors deserves a closer look — and the Taipei City Government has managed to do that with its grandiose plans for the 2017 Summer Universiade and a bid for the 2016 World Design Capital (WDC) title.
The city government has submitted a budget of NT$20 billion (US$685.5 million) for the Universiade and NT$290 million to cover bidding to become a World Design Capital as part of its budget plans for next year. The city’s long-term budget for the Universiade will reportedly be close to NT$42.5 billion, with the central government chipping in NT$340 million. There is no word yet on the total budget for the WDC bid.
Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) has staunchly defended the city’s plans, saying they will boost its international reputation, but he also told the city council that he would strive to avoid overspending.
However, given the problems that surfaced with contracts and expenditures for the Taipei International Flora Expo and the continuing debate over maintenance and usage of the remaining facilities, city councilors are to be commended for nitpicking over budget details. However, they should be focusing on long-term expenditures as well as budgets for next year.
For example, Hau’s government has budgeted NT$100 million for promotional activities for the Universiade, but more than half of that is apparently earmarked for domestic promotions. How about attracting international visitors?
If you look at the flora expo for a reason to be cynical, it attracted more than 8.9 million visitors over a six-month run, but only 7 percent were foreigners, the majority of whom were either Chinese or Japanese. And yet Hau time and again boasted of how hosting the expo would boost Taipei’s international profile.
The vast majority of people coming to Taipei for the Universiade will be participants, team officials and their relatives and friends, who already know that Taipei will be hosting the event in 2017. Will NT$40 million next year for non-domestic promotions really be able to attract thousands of foreign visitors?
Then there’s the WDC competition, which, according to its Web site, aims to demonstrate how a city’s “government, industry, educational institutions, designers and population are working individually and in concert to revitalize and reinvent their urban environment.” Helsinki is the current titleholder. Previous winners have included Seoul and Torino, Spain. It costs 5,000 euros (US$6,525) to apply and another 15,000 euros if a city is shortlisted. The winning city then has to pay 150,000 euros, over three years, as a licensing fee.
It is time Hau and his team explain just how the NT$290 million earmarked for the WDC bid next year will be spent, since analyzing the total budget has been made more difficult by the Department of Cultural Affairs dividing it between various departments and agencies. For example, the Department of Environmental Protection has listed NT$40 million to design new uniforms for street cleaners.
Certainly Taipei’s street cleaners deserve uniforms that will keep them visible as they work, but NT$40 million? Is that just for the design process or will it actually include the cost of several thousand uniforms?
If Taipei residents have to pay, via taxes, to redesign the city for the competition (and then pay for the right to use the title if they win), they also have the right to know how much they are expected to pay and where the money is going, right down to the cost of new uniforms or a replacement light bulb for a streetlight.
Even in times when the economy is not suffering, oversight of city spending should be a priority for city councilors. These days every single dollar should be carefully accounted for. Taipei is already committed to the Universiade, but that doesn’t mean money can be thrown around. It might be time to ask whether the city really needs to be spending money on pursuing the WDC title, when facilities and roadways need maintenance, not to mention funding social programs.