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EXPENSES OF PAST ADMINISTRATION

San Juan City left with debt of nearly P1B, says new mayor

MANILA, Philippines — One week after a jubilant welcome into City Hall, San Juan Mayor Francis Zamora addressed employees anew on Monday — this time to paint a sober portrait of the city’s financial affairs.

The previous administration under Mayor Guia Gomez had left him with a debt of nearly P1 billion, Zamora said, the bulk of which was due to expenses incurred from the construction of San Juan’s palatial City Hall and the expansion of San Juan Medical Center.

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The bleak financial situation came on the heels of a Commission on Audit (COA) report that found that Gomez’s onetime lover, former President and Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, had passed on a P4.3-billion deficit to his successor, Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso.

Estrada was himself a mayor of San Juan, the family’s longtime political bailiwick, for 17 years.

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Zamora defeated the patriarch’s granddaughter, Janella Ejercito Estrada, in the midterm polls after a campaign that focused relentlessly on corruption allegations hounding the clan.

Although the close to P1-billion debt was far less eye-popping than the P4.3-billion deficit in Manila, it was still significant considering San Juan is Metro Manila’s smallest city in population (122,000 in 2015). Manila is the second largest (1.8 million).

Gomez turned over P1.3 billion to Zamora, but he said that after deducting earmarked funds and other payables, that amount plunged to just P300 million.

Expenses exceed income

Even with the P700-million income the city is expected to generate by December, the mayor said the year would likely end with a P100-million deficit, given the P1.1 billion in projected expenses under its 2019 budget.

“This is all based on official documents provided by the finance committee of the local government,” he said. “I am inviting the COA central office to probe the transactions of the past administrations to make it clear just how much was really left to me.”

During his address, Zamora cited “recurring contractors and suppliers” for projects under the previous administration that, he said, merited a closer look.

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“Some suppliers were repeatedly given large contracts,” he said. “One of these is Beniqueyelle [Enterprises], which [had] received 104 awarded contracts since 2016 amounting to P315 million.”

COA judgment

The mayor later told reporters that he was not trying to imply that the previous occupants of City Hall were corrupt. He left it to the COA to decide whether to render that judgment.

He said he was merely inviting state auditors to conduct an investigation that would clear the air.

“I don’t want to be lambasted for holding onto a large amount of money when in reality, that P1.3-billion check has already been appropriated for other things,” Zamora said.

The bleak financial situation also led Zamora to issue his first executive order, “Institutionalizing the San Juan City local government integrity system,” which would clear the way for the adoption of an internal audit system.

The order calls for the creation of an integrity task force to assess “all aspects of city government” that are vulnerable to corruption and develop a subsequent action plan to check those risks.

Inviting investors

“There is an urgent and imperative need to adopt a proactive and systematic approach to anticorruption by enhancing the whole city governance system,” it read.

Zamora, who was elected on a promise to enact an ambitious—and costly—agenda, said he would lead the financial recovery by enticing investors to “pump more money into the city” and ensuring a more efficient collection of taxes.

Former Sen. JV Ejercito, Gomez’s son with Estrada, hit back at Zamora on Twitter, saying it would have been easier for Gomez to find funding if Zamora’s father, Rep. Ronaldo Zamora, had worked with her.

“Had they supported and worked together, the funds from national government could have helped,” Ejercito said. “Would rather have a loan and constituents would benefit from improved medical services than wait another 10 years if we rely on the local funds.”

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