Citizens Absent at the
Open Session of the
Town Council

Interactive city budget
Members of the civil society in Spitak
say participation in the town council
sessions is inefficient
Hasmik Dilanyan
The social and economic problems in Spitak located 97 km away from Yerevan emerged before Armenia's independence, and were the consequence of the 1988 earthquake that reduced the town, once an industrial center, to rubles.

The community today faces the challenge of tackling both the post-Soviet social-economic decline, and the persistent damage caused by the devastating earthquake.

The younger generation has learnt about the life in this once flourishing town from their elders. The residents of Spitak, used to a well-off life they once had, are reluctant to voice their problems, and only few are ready to partake in matters of self-administration.

Karen Arghamanyan, 18, a resident of the German district in Spitak, is one those few young people, who are actively involved in community life, participate in town council sessions, and bring up own suggestions. Citizen participation in the community life is important to Karen: he says he is concerned with the small number of those who care and who believe their suggestions may be heard by local decision-makers.

"I try to convince my friends to attend the town council sessions. They are reluctant, saying their voices won't be taken seriously. The problem is that they are not well informed and do not know what's the use of it for them. I don't bring up suggestions only because I can't provide the required participation of 50 plus citizens," says Arghamanyan.

Karen underlines the citizens lack self-confidence, are unaware of the laws, and of their own rights.
"I am sure our mayor won't reject a suggestion if there are 20 or 30 of us who make it."
Resident of the German district in Spitak
Karen Arghamanyan
video: Gayane Mirzoyan
Earlier in 2010 the Spitak Helsinki Group right advocacy organization held a survey to find out the extent to which the residents of Spitak are aware of the activities of the town council. Ashkhen Babayan, the founder of the organization, says none of the 100 respondents could tell what the town council is.

"At one point we organized meetings between council members and residents: the council members were rather active, but then the people in the council changed, and the connection between the local self-administration and the non-governmental organizations interrupted. The residents today hardly know the members of the council," says the founder of the right advocacy group.

Askhen Babayan used to regularly participate in the council sessions, come up with projects on increasing the number of waste bins, expansion of green areas, renovation of parks, refurbishing the territories near schools and kindergartens with the required traffic signs, as well as the marking the pedestrian crossings across the town.

"No suggestion has ever been accepted. The social institute of town council does not work here. I got disappointed working with the structures of self-administration. The law says the agenda of the council session shall go public seven days before the session; and still they call us and tell of a planned session only an hour before its start. We don't participate any longer, trying to spend our time more meaningfully," says Ashkhen Babayan.

Mayor of Spitak Gagik Sahakyan opposes by saying the town council sessions are open for the community members, and that it is the community that is passive. The NGOs are properly notified of the upcoming sessions, he insists.

"They seem indifferent and passive, even if they come. The residents of Spitak are not interested in the funds spent in the town. People have a problem: they care just for the utility payments at the end of each month," says Sahakyan, who has been in the mayor's office for the last ten years.
"The law says the agenda shall be made public seven days before the session of the town council, yet we are called and told about a planned session only an hour before. We don't participate anymore, trying to spend our time more usefully," says Ashkhen Babayan.
photos: Anahit Minasyan
"Town residents do not care about the money spent in the city. People have one problem: they are worried about how to pay for the utilities in the end of the month," says the head of Spitak community Gagik Sahakyan.
The town budget is around AMD 350 million. The mayor says the funds available to town are equal to those of the local hospital.

Spitak, with population in 11,000 people, spends AMD20,000 per capita. Sahakyan, the head of the community, says they need at least AMD 80,000 to deliver tangible results.

In 2017 the town budget made AMD 368.4 million, which has grown against that of the previous years for AMD 22.2 million. The growth is s result of the evening-out policy of the government at the expense of the state budget, property tax revenues, as well as increased local fees, and administrative pays.

In 2017 Spitak witnessed significant growth in own revenues (revenue growth in around AMD 14 million) as compared to those in previous year equals to AMD 22.2 million including the state allocations. The expenses have grown in general services (10%), housing construction and utilities (11%), recreation, culture, religion (5%), and education (2%).

The mayor says compared to other communities the budget of the town is stable, which is due to real estate sales transactions and the free funds that are being accumulated by end of the year. About one third of the town funds are directed to the municipality staff related expenses; another 30% of the budget is allotted to education. Major part of the funds covers payroll expenses.

The majority of the municipal funds in 2015-2017 were directed to the pre-school education (AMD 50-60 million), services in the sphere of culture (AMD 30-41 million), and outdoor illumination expenses.
The expenses on environmental protection in 2017 dropped for 71% reaching AMD 32.7 million against AMD 69.4 million in 2015. According to the survey by Urbanista this was mostly a matter of significant reduction of expenses in waste disposal.

In 2017 the community administration of Spitak spent AMD 40 million of the town funds for waste disposal and sanitation purposes.

"The center of the town is cleaned once a day; the cigarette butts thrown on the ground after the cleaning remain there till next day. You may have the impression the town is not cleaned. Yet to handle the garbage on the streets accumulated during the day we will need staff for every thousand meter," says the community head.

Ashkhen Babayan says the town, which boasted being the cleanest settlement in Lori marz only few years ago, is not the same today. "I don't think the problem is with the residents," says Babayan.

The results of Urbanista's online survey show that the residents of the town prioritize road renovations, yard space improvements, and education. Social safety is important to 29% of respondents; the housing services and culture related matters share equal levels of public interest.

Spitak mayor supports the priority given to local infrastructures. "We try to keep the existing asphalt covering. Our funds are too scarce for a totally new paving. The problem can be partially solved only if we have side support," he says.
How the municipal budget of Spitak should be allocated ?
Real time voting visualization
Road construction
City events
Еnvironmental protection
Social security
Yard territories improvement
Housing stock maintenance
The AMD 50 million investments by Hambardzumyan Benevolent Foundation in 2014-2018 have helped to totally renovate parts of Tumanian and Arapnya streets, as well as Torosyan street, in Spitak.

AMD7 million have been spent for renovation of 58,700 sqm of earth roads. Town illumination and park area improvements were made partially possible owing to support of various organizations.
Roads condition in Spitak
Based on Spitak city Development 5-year program data.
Spitak is the gate to Lori marz where all the roads to the north of the country and the Yerevan-Tbilisi highway cross. The evidently heavy traffic in the center of Spitak is nevertheless regulated without street lights, and most of the streets have no illumination; the mayor insisted, though, the local authorities are even more concerned by the outdoor illumination than asphalt covering.

The municipality has managed to make some savings by replacing the old electric bulbs with LED lamps; this savings are expected to let the authorities implement development programs, which require funds exceeding those available in the community budget.

This effort has helped dramatically reduce the expenses for street illumination: in 2017 the illumination expenditures made AMD 7.2 million against AMD 19.1 million in 2015, and AMD 21.2 million in 2016.
photo: Anahit Minasyan
photo: Anahit Minasyan
photo: Anahit Minasyan
Places like parks, children playgrounds, and recreation areas in Spitak remain unattended. Residents of Spitak head to Vanadzor or Yerevan to take their kids to have fun. The only café in the town, Ukraina, has long been closed.

"There is no park, no new fur-trees are planted in the place of those fallen by hurricane; there's no public restroom. The benches are repaired, but need renovation. The carousels in Spitak have been operating since 1968 and may now pose danger to children. There are just few playgrounds inside the yard areas. If we had just AMD1 million we could at least renovate the dock apron of the park pool, where children love to swim: it has turned into a slough," Ashkhen Babayan shares her concerns.

She believes on local level the joint efforts of the local authorities and the civil society are instrumental for positive changes and improvements in the community life.