HK$100m grants to district councils spark debate on public interest

District councils' decisions on how to use taxpayers' money in Yuen Long and Tai Po may not serve residents the best, members say

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 June, 2013, 4:37am

The decisions of two district councils to use their HK$100 million government grants on community projects of their choice have renewed a debate over whether taxpayers' money is going into advancing the people's interest or that of politicians.

The 18 district councils each have a one-off grant of HK$100 million from Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to improve neighbourhood facilities.

Yuen Long councillors have endorsed a proposal to build a new town hall, while their Tai Po counterparts have decided to turn a vacant school campus into a civic centre.

They need approval from the Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau and the Legislative Council before inviting tenders.

In Yuen Long, the decision to build a new town hall instead of facilities that would meet more basic livelihood needs worried Democrat Zachary Wong Wai-yin, who has served as the district's councillor for 25 years.

The project, which would house social activities such as opera classes, might not be in the best interest of Yuen Long residents, Wong said.

"In fact, I am worried about all [such] projects around the city," he said. "I'm concerned whether the government will favour [government-friendly bodies].

"We don't seem to lack [facilities for] social services in the district, either."

Wong, together with five other councillors, believed dental services for the elderly would be a better use of the public funds.

That idea, along with one tabled by the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong for a wet market in Tin Shui Wai, were shot down in a council vote on May 20.

Twenty councillors backed the idea of a new town hall, possibly next to the 41-year-old Yuen Long Town Hall, which is run by a management committee of 43 directors, including five district councillors.

Similarly, councillors in neighbouring Tai Po district are concerned about a possible conflict of interest.

In March, the council endorsed two proposals raised by Lam Tsuen Valley councillor Chan Cho-leung and Dr Yau Wing-kwong to boost tourism facilities at the Lam Tsuen Wishing Tree, which draws scores of devotees during the Lunar New Year, and to turn the closed Tai Po Government Secondary School campus into a civic centre, respectively. The proposals were not put to the vote.

NeoDemocrats councillor Francis Yam Kai-bong noted that at least three of his colleagues were closely linked to a local body called the Tai Po arts association.

The project might create a conflict of interest, he said. Tai Po district council chairman Cheung Hok-ming is vice-chairman of the association, according to its website.

"We urge [the government] to ensure a fully open tender, otherwise people may be worried whether the public money is used to feed local organisations. Besides, they can repay the government in future," Yam said.

"This could be worse than erecting statues, because landmarks may be criticised for being ugly, but now these projects could be [politically oriented]."

He was referring to revelations that district bodies had wasted public funds on "landmarks" such as a HK$1.2 million goose statue to honour the roast goose dish that put Sham Tseng on the map.

The Home Affairs Department is overseeing the initiative that has thrown up at least 25 project proposals from 16 district councils. Only Tuen Mun and Kwun Tong have yet to make up their minds.

Among the 25 projects, seven were proposed by Beijing-loyalists DAB and four by the rural authority Heung Yee Kuk.

Only two endorsed projects were initiated by pan-democrats - in Southern and Sai Kung districts.