LGUs in the Philippines

Generals and CEOs: Can Rama’s advisers, supporters push Cebu City closer to Singapore status?

John Sitchon

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Generals and CEOs: Can Rama’s advisers, supporters push Cebu City closer to Singapore status?

MASS TRANSPORTATION Rama believes that a Bus Rapid Transport system would help solve the city's traffic congestion problem

Cebu BRT Project

Continuity helps to push programs with a new mandate, Rama’s first 100 days show his prowess in getting investments from large companies

CEBU, Philippines – On June 30, on his second inauguration as mayor of Cebu City, Mike Rama promised constituents a future of living in a Singapore-like smart city. 

Over the course of 100 days, this dream has drawn the interest of powerful business leaders, retired generals, and politicians who have now joined the mayor’s fold of advisers and consultants.

The same dream, however, has its fair share of critics who question the feasibility of the mayor’s ambitious goal.

Can the city government afford it? What price will residents pay for Rama’s vision?

The city’s local finance committee (LFC) in August bared plans to raise taxes and “rightsize” the local bureaucracy.

“There are no more funds for the new administration to use for new projects,” said lawyer Collin Rosell, the mayor’s secretary.

The LFC’s fiscal management report showed the city with only P4.5 billion in cash as of June 30.

This money was already tied to the P5 billion servicing of payables, including the jumpstarting long-term development plans, projects already issued certificates of available funds (CAF), and continuing works that have already received partial payment.

Cebu’s floods and congested riverbanks are a major obstacle to Rama’s dream of a Singapore-like cityscape.

On Thursday, October 6, the head of the city planning and development office said the city lacked funds for the medium-rise socialized housing units needed to replace 14,000 informal settler homes targeted for demolition over a three-year period. Planning head Joseph Michael “Yumi” Espina said the city plans to take out 2,000 of these homes within a year.

The mayor, however, is banking on his ability to lure in investors for critical infrastructure projects and donors for his other programs.

Cebu, a key national hub for commerce and tourism, has proven its worth as an investment destination, albeit with controversy, with the major overhaul of the historic Carbon Market.

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TIMELINE: Carbon Market redevelopment from proposal to demolitions

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Vision, tribute 

At the start of his 2022 campaign for his first full term as mayor, Rama listed what he dubbed as “21 Gun Salute” impact projects. 

These projects are a tribute.

Prior to joining the “One Cebu Island” coalition that supported the Uniteam tandem of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte, Rama stepped up as mayor when incumbent Edgar Labella died on November 19, 2021. 

Rama swore to complete Labella’s “unfinished” business, prioritizing those 21 projects in the first 100 days of his administration.

Rama believes these projects would help realize a Singapore-like Cebu City. 

It is hard to implement major reforms in Cebu without affecting other local governments. Rama’s alliance with Governor Gwen Garcia, who consolidated the island’s powers under One Cebu, will smoothen the road for his grand goal.

The mayor’s main problem is money.

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Financial roadblock

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown and Typhoon Odette wreaked havoc on Cebu City’s finances.

The city’s expenses went from P7.2 billion in 2019 to P10.3 billion in 2020. A majority of the expenses went to COVID-19 mitigation programs.

Between 2020 and 2022, the city appropriated another P3.04 billion for inoculation programs and other COVID-related expenditures.

HEALTH EMERGENCY. Medical workers in Sitio Zapatera, Barangay Luz, Cebu City, prepare to transfer COVID-19-positive patients to an isolation area on April 21, 2020.

Devastated by Typhoon Odette in December 2021, the city poured P1.08 billion into rehabilitation efforts and financial aid to residents.

Mobility and operation curbs due to COVID-19 health protocols also slashed tax collections from businesses.

The city’s 2020 tax revenues were at P8.7 billion compared to expenses nearing P10.4 billion. Tax revenues shrunk further the year after to just P7.4 billion, with expenses of at least P10.2 billion.

Some 2,900 businesses in the city had either applied for retirement or just closed in 2021, Cebu City treasurer Maria Vae Reyes told reporters on February 11.

But there was good news: The city had  collected P820 million from business taxes alone in the first two months of 2022. Reyes expressed optimism in hitting this year’s P2-billion tax collection target.

Tough fiscal policies

Foreign exchange losses, meanwhile, added P1.9 billion between 2003 and 2011 to its P4.5-billion Japan International Cooperation Agency(JICA) loan for the Cebu South Road Properties (SRP) development.

To improve the city’s bottomline, the LFC recommended “rightsizing” the city’s departments, disposing of unused government assets, and increasing tax collection for businesses, properties, and other charges.

In June, the last month of Rama’s last term, the city laid off around 500 coterminous, casual, and job order employees.

In August, Rama told department heads to brace for “substantially reduced human resource” within six months. 

Rama’s qualifications for employees to stay? They should not be thieves or gossipers, or lazy, dirty, quarrelsome, ignorant, or defaulters, and backstabbers – all written in Memorandum No. 226-05-2022.  

“I suggest that if you cannot shape up, ship out. We do not want you here,” Rama said on September 17. 

Trimming payroll expenses, however, is just a small portion of fiscal management. 

To help hasten the achievement of his goals, Rama reached out to retired government officials, including former generals and a former senator.

Old friends

The controversial former chief of the Philippine National Police, Debold Sinas, was the first to join Rama’s team. 

As adviser to the city’s Peace and Order Council (CPOC), Sinas can recommend security policies during major political and non-political events. But human rights groups note the many problems in his tenure as police chief in Central Visayas, based in Cebu City, from July 2018 to October 2019.

On August 30, as Cebu was flooded from days of heavy rains, Rama appointed another retired general, former environment and natural resources secretary Roy Cimatu, as the city’s adviser for environmental concerns. 

Cimatu now oversees the implementation of the three-meter easement along the city’s waterways and leads the anti-flood unit, Task Force “Gubat sa Baha.”

Cimatu, during the term of president Rodrigo Duterte, helped handle pandemic response when Cebu became a COVID-19 epicenter.

In September, Rama brought in former senator Franklin Drilon and former Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) secretary Rogelio Singson, and former deputy of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) in Cebu, retired general Mel Feliciano, into his Cebu City Advisory Council (CCAC).

“We look forward to being able to see a Singapore-like Cebu City in our lifetime,” Drilon said in a press conference on September 19. 

FLOOD WOES. A sudden downpour inundates several areas in Barangay Duljo, Cebu City, on July 21, 2022.
Becoming Singapore

The former senator said Singapore flourished because Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had more than just leadership and unity – he also implemented good governance.

Cebu City is still some way off from the highly-developed status of Singapore, an island-state.

It faces some obstacles.

To begin with, human resources. Cebu City’s 2020 population stood at 964,169, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. The city-state of Singapore in the same year had 5.97 million, based on United Nations projections.

Becoming like Singapore would also require Cebu City to be economically independent from the capital Manila, with the capacity to ride out economic storms when these rock the nation. 

Based on World Bank data, Singapore’s rate of change of real GDP (which determines economic growth) from 2010 to 2021 was at 7.61 points, while the Philippines had 5.7 points.

Can Cebu wing it alone? 

The Department of Finance’s Bureau of Local Government Finance 2021 list of the Top 10 Cities in terms of the Highest Locally Sourced Revenues (LSR) does not include Cebu City.

Local governments generate LSRs from real property tax, tax on business, other taxes, regulatory fees, service/user charges, and receipts from economic enterprises. 

100 days

Continuity helps to push programs forward. With a new mandate, Rama’s first 100 days show his prowess in getting investments from large companies, in infrastructure handovers, and other accomplishments.

In the last months of his previous term, the city discussed with Governor Garcia the 93-1 agreement for socialized housing on April 5, and held its Solid Waste Management Summit the following day. 

The city and the DPWH also began Project “Asphalt Storm,” a program to rehabilitate the city’s roads.

Cebu City held its River Summit on June 2. 

On June 29, Cebu Landmasters donated a P115-million mid-rise building in Barangay Lorega–San Miguel for socialized housing.

SOCIALIZED HOUSING Cebu Landmasters donated a 5-story medium-rise building in Barangay Lorega–San Miguel to the city government. Photo courtesy of Cebu City PIO

Rama’s new term started on July 1. Three weeks later, he was elected president of the League of Cities of the Philippines. Around this time, he also met with the President and got his support for the city’s development.

On July 31, the city received P50 million from the developer of the Carbon Market. Rama also signed the supplemental document to the joint-venture agreement of the Carbon Market Modernization Project to “correct any erroneous parts.”

In August, the mayor raised over P1 billion in pledges from seven developers and Filipino, Chinese, and Canadian investor groups. 

The funds will allow the city to finish the development of the 10-floor Cebu City Medical Center (CCMC) and to add five more medim-rise buildings for families affected by the city’s river clearing operations and for city employees.

Telecommunications tycoon Manny Pangilinan, who has diversified to hospitals, pledged to support Rama by helping work on the medical building.

MEDICAL CENTER. A sketch of the Cebu City Medical Center, one of the key fund-raising targets of Mayor Mike Rama, has gotten attention from tycoon Manny Pangilinan. Image courtesy of Cebu City PIO

Rama signed Executive Order No. 2 on August 19, creating Task Force Gubat sa Baha and ordering the strict implementation of the three-meter easement along riverbanks. 

On the same day, he signed the executive order creating the Cebu City Waterfront Development Commission to improve and rehabilitate the city’s waterfront area.

Rama’s trip to Canada in August bagged around  P100 million in pledges from Filipino-Canadian investors. A “Friendship City” agreement with the City of Vancouver could bring in more investments.

Rama signed Executive Order No. 5 on August 31, making Cebu City the first major city in the country to ease mask restrictions. He later signed Executive Order No. 6, supplementing the previous order after it received mixed reactions from the national government.

On the last day of August, Cebu City announced that it had paid its P960-million loan balance for the development of the SRP.

In an earlier interview with Rappler, Jerome Castillo, the city consultant for finance and special assistant to Mayor Rama, said that payment would make the city “officially debt-free.”

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Rama tasked his wife, Malou, in September to lead the Cebu City Parks and Playgrounds Commission. The tasks entail the beautification of the city’s major roads, including flyovers.

The city started repainting the center islands along Pope John Paul Avenue near SM City Cebu and Radisson Blu Hotel.

But the 93-1 property deal between the city and provincial government for socialized housing had a hiccup.

Cebu City Vice Mayor Raymond Garcia told Sunstar that both local governments had agreed on the land valuation method, but the resulting amount – P8 billion – was “too high.” He asked the city council to create a land appraisal committee and present a more affordable option.

WATERFRONT. Rama intends to have this area developed to achieve a Singapore-like image for Cebu City. Image courtesy of Cebu City PIO

Rama on September 16 announced he got Manila Water chairman Enrique Razon Jr. to commit to building a dam in the headwaters of the Mananga River in Barangay Lusaran, Cebu City.

The mayor also got P100 million in pledges from Megawide Construction Corporation, affiliates of the Metrobank Group, and the Lucio Tan Group Incorporated.

On September 17, the city government held a coastal clean-up with other government agencies. 

On September 19, the Philippine Daily Inquirer said Pangilinan was eyeing a proposal to build a ramp that would extend the 8.9-kilometer Cebu-Cordova Link Expressway to Guadalupe City.

On September 26, during Cebu City’s first Mobility Summit, engineer Norvin Imbong of the Cebu Bus Rapid Transit Project Management Office announced the official launch in the 4th quarter of 2023. The project will be fully operational by the second quarter of 2025, Imbong added.

On September 29, Ma. Charisse Pineda of the SRP Management Office announced plans for two roundabouts constructed at the SRP.

On the same day, Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan elected Rama as its Vice President for the Visayas. – Rappler.com

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