The Ballad of the Budget of Marisel


Word Count: 2348

You cannot even imagine how excited I was to read this:

A programme launched by the finance ministry on Friday now makes available monthly budget execution data for the country’s roughly 17,720 state institutions, including parliament, ministries, city halls, schools and hospitals.
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“Any citizen, company and taxpayer can now see how public funds are distributed and how they are spent by local, county or central administration,” Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos told reporters.

First of all, woah! 17 thousand state institutions? That’s quite a lot. But I am unequivocally happy to see that, for the first time ever, the public actually has a chance to see how public money is being spent.

Well, sort of.

Prior to the disclosure programme, which was financed with EU development funds and took three years to implement, budget data was reported to the finance ministry and central administration, making access more complicated.
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The programme introduces automated checks of budget data and in case of irregularities stops institutions from making treasury payments until they address the issues, which works as an incentive for budget reporting discipline.

Three years!? Well, as I’ve said before, it’s really weird how a country full of hackers and super talented programmers suffers from some of the worst government computer systems of all time.

All that aside, I am excited that at least some of the public budget information is online. So of course I decided to take a look. The English-language article doesn’t link to the new online database but it’s not too hard to find over here.

There’s some bullshit involved, of course, like doing CAPTCHA work for free for the Romanian government (a nice touch) but if you’re persistent you can ultimately get to the sweet, sweet data.

The Village of Marisel

My first instinct was to look into good old Unicorn City, otherwise known as Cluj-Napoca, but I quickly realized that the budgets were far too complex to really analyze in a single day. After all, the city is somehow responsible not just for police officers and hospitals but also things like some high schools (but not all) and other assorted weird things (like an information center).

Instead of bogging down in such a huge case, I decided to focus on Marisel, a village of exactly 1,468 individuals, 99% of whom are Romanian (and who knows what the last guy/woman is).

Romania is divided into different administrative units, the biggest being the judete, sometimes called “counties” in English but that’s more like the UK definition of “county”. For Americans, it’s more like a “state” as it has a “governor” (prefect) and a capital, etc.

After the judet level comes cities (of which there are more than 5,000 in Romania), some of which – like Cluj-Napoca – are big metropolises but most are pretty small (just 5,000 people). Lower than the city level is the comuna, translated as “commune” in English but it’s more like “district”. And even smaller than the comuna is the village.

Marisel (mar-ee-shell) is both a communa (administrative unit) and a village. In this case, it means that there’s a single village (called Marisel) and because it’s located in a mountainous area, there are no other villages nearby. So the commune government administers just the village (1,468 people) and the land around the village. And this commune/village is located in the judet of Cluj.

You don’t need to go through all the CAPTCHA bullshit to find Marisel’s budget because all the budgets are hosted on the website of ANAF (the tax authority). Here is a PDF of their budget for Marisel for February 2016.

Crunching the Numbers

As you can see, it really isn’t that revealing. All the expenditures (cheltuiala) and revenue (venit) are only grossly defined. For example, it just lists “total salaries” for the administration without breaking it down into job type (mayor, etc). And there’s plenty of room to hide corruption in categories like “other objects” (alte obiecte) and “other expenses” (alte cheltuieli).

Nonetheless, looking at Marisel’s budget is quite illuminating. Remember, this is just the February monthly budget for the commune of Marisel, a month with just 29 days.

Now let’s see what life is like in this absurdly small government division!

First, total revenues for the commune totaled 491,439 lei (110 thousand euros) while total expenditures were 310,956 lei (70k euros) meaning the commune is running a net surplus of 40 thousand euros. Holy cow! If this really is accurate then a tiny village is running half a million euros per year surplus.

Some of the “income” for this tiny village is coming from the national government to the tune of 125,348 lei (28k euros) which combined with VAT (Ro: TVA) monies redistributed to the area (188,000 lei or 42k euros) means that the commune is receiving far more money per month (roughly 70k euros) from Bucharest than it actually spends.

But that’s all decided by the a higher level of bureaucracy. Let’s look at the expenditure side of things, the place where local corruption usually happens.

Administration salaries (total) = 77,348 lei (17,300 euros). Wow. That seems absurdly high.

Meanwhile the administration is spending 7,630 lei (1,700 euros) a month on gasoline, 1000 lei (225 euros) on car parts and 5,241 lei (1,175 euros) for “other objects”. And there’s the odd category of indemnizatii platite unor persoane din afara unitate which means “monies paid to people not in the administration” (no idea what that means) of 10,492 lei (2,346 euros).

Total administration expenses: 159076 lei or 35,600 euros. Some of that (34370 lei or 7700 euros) is mandatory taxes paid on salaries and other stuff that goes to the national government to be redistributed as pensions and health insurance. Therefore the real monthly administration expenditures total 124,706 lei or 27,900 euros a month.

Sheesh. And that doesn’t count the police salaries (5,132 lei or 1150 euros for one guy) or the salary (salaries?) of the library (3917 lei or 876 euros) and the social workers’ salaries (58,360 lei or 13k euros). Some social workers helping the elderly I understand, but let’s not forget that the commune pays for a single agricultural worker (whom I guess farms public land?) to the tune of 3,170 lei a month (709 euros).

Add that all up and you get 70 thousand euros a month for a village of just 1,648 people.

Some of the expenses seem about normal, things like paying for trash collection (824 lei or 185 euros) and public illumination of streets and buildings. And I love libraries, so as surprising as it is to see that a tiny village even has a library, we’ll just assume that all those expenses are worthwhile.

But why does a tiny village needs a single police officer that costs the commune some 1200 euros a month.

If there’s any serious corruption hidden here, it’s things like “mail, publications, radio, TV and internet” expenditures of 3,521 lei (788 euros) and materiale si prestari de servicii cu caracter functional (goods and services) for 17,343 lei (3880 euros) that’s not broken down or explained in any way.

Nobody knows why the local government needs so much internet (or paid TV) and who is selling and providing all these “goods and services” and what those goods and services even are.

I also see that the commune is spending 12000 lei (2683 euros) on building camine culturale which translates loosely as “cultural housing” but really means something like “grand hall/exhibition hall”, called a “casa de cultura” (house of culture) in other places.

Marisel already has a camin cultural, which I know because of this article. It’s unknown whether the construction costs are going to repair the current hall or to build a new one but it’s plural in the Romanian so I’m going to assume that they’re building a new one.

Whatever is going on, I see that the commune announced it was renting out 80 square meters in the basement of the “Camin Cultural” to a company that would be opening a disco. Nice!

And, with a little research, I see that the famous DNA is investigating a village in judetul Botosani for corruption relating to the construction of a camin cultural, so it’s not unusual for corruption to involve bogus construction costs. Unfortunately, the Marisel budget information doesn’t tell you which firm is doing the construction work.

I also have no idea why the commune is paying someone to work “in the agricultural field”, which could mean anything from tilling a field to running around doing something else vaguely related to agriculture. I do note that the commune is shelling out 3,170 lei a month to pay someone’s salary but they are also spending 3000 lei (671 euros) on “other costs for goods and services” related to agriculture. Again, who knows what those goods and services are and who provided them.

This commune could be riddled with construction and there’s no way to tell it from looking at their budget. But it is useful to at least begin to know where to look if you do suspect that something’s amiss.

The Big Picture

All in all, I’m still quite happy about this progress and consider it a hugely positively step forward.

Even assuming that all of Marisel’s expenses are legitimate and judicious, this is an excellent illustration of just how fucked up the organization of the government is.

  • The village administration costs a whopping 28k euros a month
  • The village is paying for farm work and agricultural “services”
  • The village is paying for its own social workers and police officer
  • The village budget has a surplus of 70k euros yet 40k of that is coming straight from Bucharest

Now that is a lot of bureaucracy for a village of 1,648 people!

Residents and businesses in Marisel pay taxes that then go to the commune and then get transferred to Bucharest which then get redistributed back to Marisel. But where does the surplus go? I have no idea whether it goes back to Bucharest a second time or whether it stays in some kind of reserve fund, but that is a hell of a lot of paperwork and redundancy.

Mind you, I’m not picking on Marisel. I’ve been to the nearby town of Huedin several times but never to Marisel. I only picked their name “out of the hat” simply because it was a budget I found on the new website and it was for a very small population (just 1,648 people) so easier to understand.

The Ballad of Traian Maris

Only after looking through their budget did I find this article from 2014, announcing that the “mayor” of Marisel commune, Maris Traian (2008-present), was being investigated for embezzlement. Supposedly, Maris Traian was building villas for powerful (jud) Cluj politicians like Alan Tise and Horea Uioreanu (from 2008-2012 Tise was the head of Cluj county council and Uioreanu has had that job since 2012) as well as another 21 villas for other powerful politicians.

Although the DNA filed charges against him, I see that he’s still the “mayor” of the commune so apparently nothing ever came out of it.

In 2015, this article announced that Maris Traian sold the grazing rights to 48 hectares of public land to his wife and “godfather”. Furthermore, out of a total of 200 hectares of public land put up for lease as pasture land, 100 out of 130 lessees were members of his family. Sheesh! And this land was rented out for the amazingly low price of 60 lei (13.5 euros) a hectare.

Here is the Maris Traian’s reaction when a journalist asked him about this (my translation):

“Let me tell you something. On Wednesday there’s about 130 bidders registered and maybe, I’m not kidding, 100 of those people are my family members. What can I do if my family is so big? Neither I nor the vice-mayor are part of the commission [to lease the pasture land]. The commission consists of people who don’t have any livestock. And I’m the one who’s facing questions?

Yep, I’m sure there’s no corruption there whatsoever. Meanwhile this guy, his wife AND his godfather (not to mention his brother and other members of his “huge” family) are all grazing sheep on public land.

Meanwhile, over in this article we learn that roughly 5 million euros of illegal logging (roughly 15 thousand trees) happened in the county of Cluj and that roughly 3,000 hectares of this illegal logging happened in the commune of Marisel with direct complicity by Maris Traian. While nothing has been proven, it is undeniable that Romania has a huge problem with illegal logging.

Opaque Transparency

The commune of Marisel has its own website, which includes its budget (although the most recent is the “estimated budget” for 2015), all arranged in a higgledy-piggledy fashion that is much harder to understand. And there’s absolutely nothing in there about building a new “camin cultural”.

There’s a link for bids for government services but it doesn’t lead anywhere and there’s no information there. So again, no way to know who is furnishing and supplying all those “materials and services” that the village is buying. In fact, about half the links don’t lead anywhere, even basic ones like “history” and “sports”.

About the only useful information on there is that there’s just one “agricultural agent” (Ana Stan) and one local police officer (Aurel Matis) so those numbers from the budget are for one person’s salary (apiece).

Again, all this staggeringly large bureaucracy, corruption (or allegations thereof), nepotism (indisputable) and poor bookkeeping is related to one tiny mountain village. There are 2,856 communes in the country divided into almost 13,000 villages so who freaking knows what the real big picture is.

I’m hoping that someone, somewhere in Romania (who writes in Romanian) will start using this new budget information to get cracking on some deeper investigative work. It took three years to make this baby step happen. Let’s hope it doesn’t take that long for some real journalists to crack open a few of these rotten nuts and expose all the corruption and nepotism going on outside of the spotlight of large cities like Cluj and Bucharest.

Note: Horea Uioreanu is originally from the village of Marisel, which may explain why he has a cabin/villa there. Furthermore, there’s a separate guy also named Maris Traian (the cousin of the Marisel mayor) who was the long-time head of the Cluj County Forestry Service (Directie Silvice). This cousin was convicted on a number of corruption charges, including bribe taking, related to illegal logging.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Zog says:

    You should get some schooling in accounting. The document you cite is adding sums over time. If you look at the april document you will find that the sums payed to people as salaries have almost doubled . At the end of june you will find a document which will state that the salaries will have tripled. The document you cite in this article is following the actual execution of the planned budget thus money spent will increase in time. The property taxes are due to be payed march , so a lot of people will pay them before in order to get a reduction in tax so this is why the village seems to run at an excedent at the end of february.

    Like

  2. Jos_cenzura says:

    Wonderful article, thanks for delving deeper into this subject. I wonder if any organization would finance a person or two (and some travel costs) to do this kind of investigation full time.

    Like

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