Beirut’s Imaginary New Fire-Station
While $2.4 million in municipal funds slated for a fire-station disappear without a trace, the state can’t afford to pay firefighters a decent wage.
Beirut - Abu-Hassan looks up briefly, then finishes making a cup of coffee while a customer in a hurry waits in his car. After serving him, he mulls over the enquiry and chuckles with laughter. He knows the place in question as a scrap-yard, and recently heard that it might be turned into a cemetery. But a fire-station? Did I really believe there was a fire-station here?
“We heard this story ages ago,” he says. He points up with a coffee-stained finger. “Look, it’s there in front of you. Look at the firemen and the fire engines... Wise up.”
Issam drops in for a shot of coffee, no sugar. He moved to the area 20 years ago, a decade before the former head of Beirut municipality, Abdul-Munim al-Arees, decided to build the non-existent fire-station. All he knows is that the site, located between the Shatila Roundabout and the Shahidain Cemetery, was supposed to have been turned into a big civil defense center.
“We never knew what happened,” he says, adding that he had recently heard there were plans to turn it into graveyard. “We don’t know what happened to that either.”
What Abu-Hassan and Issam do not know can be found in the records, minutes and decrees of Beirut’s municipality.
On 9 October 2001, the Municipal Council of the City of Beirut and the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) issued Decree No. 751, approving the construction of a civil defense barracks on Plot No. 2639. Clause 3 of the document states that “the costs of implementing the project are to be covered from the municipality’s share of the disbursements from the independent municipal fund.”
Twenty days later, the municipality issued a new decree, No. 817, ordering the transfer of 2,250 million Lebanese Lira (LL)($1.5 million) from the “budget replenishment reserve” to the CDR to cover the costs of building a fire-station on Plot 2639.
A full year later the CDR “discovered” that the site was classified as part of “Improvement Zone 9,” where construction or altering the natural features of the land is prohibited. Given this realization, on 9 November 2002 the municipal council issued Decree No. 2002. This requested that the Directorate of Civic Planning approve the reclassification of the plot as part of “Improvement Zone 10” and secure the necessary decree from the concerned authorities, so as to enable the municipality to build the fire-station on an area of 2,000 square meters.
Later it transpired that the million and a half dollars were not enough for the CDR. In a letter dated 16 July 2004, it asked the municipality to allocate an additional $900,000 to the scheme “to cover the deficit in the current allocation” as the overall cost was “projected to be $2.4 million.” The municipality obliged, and paid up under Decree No. 72 of 24 February 2005, which bears the signature of “Eng. Abdul-Munim al-Arees.”
Four years after the project was proposed the CDR had $2.4 million in its possession to pay for it.
But a fire-station needs electricity. This dawned on the municipal council six years after it took its original decree. Accordingly, under Decree No. 555 on 6 August 2007, a request was made to Electricite du Liban to provide the site with an electricity supply.
So the money was there and the electricity was there, courtesy of EDL. The only thing missing was the fire-station itself.
Abdul-Munim al-Arees departed, and fellow Future Movement acolyte Bilal Hamad was elected head of the municipality in the 2010 elections. Under his chairmanship, the council discovered that Plot 2639 would actually be more suited to being a “cemetery for deceased Beirutis from the Sunni and Shia Muslim sects” than a fire-station.
Accordingly, it took a decree to that effect – No. 1142 – on 22 December 2011, making no passing mention of the municipality’s previous decrees, and asking no questions about the money transferred to the CDR.
In the republic of financial “negligence”, a lot more is missing than a non-existent fire-station.
What About the Firemen?
When firefighters held a sit-in in front of Beirut municipality some two months ago, they had only one demand: a decent standard of living.
There was an outcry. They were accused of behaving irresponsibly for abandoning their fire-stations and in so doing breaking the military establishment law. Few cared about how those who brave death daily are supposed to make ends meet.
A succession of meetings were held at the Beirut governorate and municipality offices and in politicians’ homes to discuss the firemen’s demands. These included resolving the legal “mystery” of whether they are classified as military or civilian personnel, an increase in pension, overtime, transport and schooling supplements, and a wage settlement.
There was deadlock for a period, and the fire-fighters were urged to form a small follow-up committee to represent them. After some give and take, and many promises, including pledges from fire brigade commander Colonel Munir Mukhallalati and some of the city council to keep on their case, their demands began being whittled down, or at best “consolidated” in a bid to put together a package solution.
According to a member of the follow-up committee, meetings with the municipality and governorate resulted in agreement that fire brigade members would receive a 60 percent basic wage hike in exchange for dropping their demands for increased supplementary allowances.
At one point they were proposed a 75 percent basic raise, accompanied by a halving of danger bonuses (which range from LL200,000 to 300,000 depending on rank). This met with the approval of most firefighters, as the improved salaries would more than offset the cut in supplements. But the offer encountered opposition within the municipality, and the 60 percent proposal, with the danger bonuses intact, remained on the table.
After agreement in principle was reached, the municipality wrote to the governorate asking for a cost evaluation. The reply came a month later, along with approval of the percentage hike, “provided that it is linked to salaries, whatever their value.”
In principle, all was settled. But there remained details for the municipal council to consider, not least from the legal standpoint.
At a recent meeting on the issue, the council’s committees discussed two ideas: the proposed 60 percent wage increase, or the payment of a “lump sum” that would not be included in the basic salary, and thus excluded from extra benefits. It is now conducting a study into the matter, which is supposed to take into account the relevant regulations and laws and the municipality’s resources and the costs which would be incurred.
The municipality is also conducting another study related to retirement pensions, which would apply to all other employees in addition to members of the fire brigade and guard. But this is also contingent on budgetary considerations, and on the financial, logistical and legal viability of such a measure, which would affect more than the 130,000 workers involved. “It’s an expensive business,” says one member of the municipality. “It would cost billions.”
These articles are edited translations from the Arabic Edition.
- Section: Economy