Cuts to also impact least fortunate members of society

The Rescue Board has been ordered to save €1.1 million next year. PHOTO: Mailiis Ollino

The next round of government cutbacks will result in the dialing back of fire prevention efforts, layoffs in the Tax and Customs Board and reduced agriculture support from the Ministry of Rural Affairs, while the funding of political parties will also be impacted.

Postimees has been covering austerity plans since April when the government, following the initiative of the Reform Party, ordered ministries to cut costs by 5 percent in all administrative areas. State agencies have now completed next year’s cost-cutting plans and shared them with the press after repeated requests.

While many agencies will receive additional funding for salary advance or more effective work organization, the cutbacks order means neither can be achieved without dialing back elsewhere. For example, the Tax and Customs Board, Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) and the Supreme Court have all been forced to cut back in order to qualify for a more competitive salary fund.

Party soldiers’ perks cut

The Ministry of Education and Research is the only authority that has attempted to hide where it plans to cut costs, even though slashing hobby education funding has been mentioned.

The ministry’s spokesperson told Postimees that the budget of the administrative area and the ministry, with more detailed cutback plans, will be approved by late December or early January – in other words, after the 2022 state budget is passed. Data from the Ministry of Finance suggests the education ministry is looking at a cut of €6.4 million in all.

Information from this spring suggested the Ministry of Internal Affairs was initially expected to save €11.7 million. A compromise reached between the ruling Reform Party and Center Party saw the austerity expectation lowered to €6.7 million. Minister of the Interior Kristian Jaani (Center) said that the ministry prioritized avoiding layoffs.

The ministry was forced to cut €600,000 from its own budget of which €172,000 will be taken from support for political parties next year. Subsidies for civil society programs will be slashed and vacant positions will remain vacant.

The Alarm Center, Estonian Academy of Security Sciences, the ministry’s IT and development center and the Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS) are expected to save a total of €1.5 million. The ministry refused to disclose the precise sums for the former three agencies to obscure the volume of the ISS budget.

The hammer will fall the hardest for the Police and Border Guard Board that is expected to save €3.5 million next year. While the PPA will get an additional €5.9 million for salary advance, the need to cut operating costs means that hikes will come at the expense of capacity.

Despite Jaani’s assurance that everything was done to avoid cutting jobs, the PPA is still looking at extensive layoffs.

“The PPA will be making redundant some 320 positions half of which are vacant. The PPA will have to lay off 150 people of whom 50 are police officers, while many of them are already receiving special pension,” PPA chief Elmar Vaher said. The police will not dial back its capacity to save lives, with austerity achieved at the expense of convenience services, procedural capacity and expedience when responding to lighter circumstances. Regional police officers will have to focus their efforts more and address the most urgent matters of feelings of security in communities. For example, the police will dial back prevention efforts.

“This could mean processing of lighter offenses, such as cases of petty theft where no suspects have been identified, taking longer. Reaction time might be slower in less critical situations, such as finding a stranger’s identification, transporting intoxicated persons to sobering-up stations etc.,” PPA Director General Elmar Vaher wrote, adding that the time it takes to cross the border and process applications and inquiries could also grow longer.

The opening time of PPA service halls will be cut back to three days a week in 11 cities that could mean longer queues. Vaher said the police hope people can be persuaded to make use of its self-service system.

Fewer police stations

Small service halls in Kuressaare, Paide, Rapla, Jõgeva, Põlva, Võru, Valga and Viljandi will be open three days a week from the new year. The services in Kärdla, Rakvere and Haapsalu are already on a three-day schedule.

The number of police stations will also be cut, with one out of three police stations closed in Harju County and two stations merged in central Estonia. The number of people working at police support and development centers will also be cut.

The Rescue Board has been ordered to save €1.1 million next year, while Deputy Director Tauno Suurkivi said that inflation and cost of living mean that the real extent of the cutbacks is double that. The Rescue Board is hit hard by the recent motor fuels price hike.

The biggest single cut is shelving the “Homes Fireproofed” project. It will help the board save €600,000 but is, according to Suurkivi, the greatest shame. However, since it is impossible to dial back the number of rescue commandos, the board has little choice. The Rescue Board has fixed up electrical systems, installed smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and repaired heating systems in 1,800 homes over the last four years, with another 4,300 buildings considered hazardous mapped. However, these efforts must now be ceased.

Suurkivi said that terminating the project means the board will have to spend more energy on consequences. “The state will end up spending more on responding to calls and local governments on helping fire victims. Of course, the worst possible effect is increased fire deaths,” Suurkivi explained.

“It breaks my heart, but we cannot cut other operating costs,” the deputy chief said in summary.

In the administrative area of the Ministry of Finance, the Tax and Customs Board will get €1.8 million for salary advance but is expected to save €1.9 million. The agency is looking at a wave of layoffs next year. “The MTA will cut 69 jobs from January 1 that allows us to plan salary hikes,” Triin Raaper, acting director for the agency, told Postimees.

The tax board employs 1,320 people, with layoffs concerning 5 percent of employees. Because the agency is still expected to perform all recent tasks, its capacity will inevitably suffer.

“We will cut back on certain activities or spend longer on them,” MTA media relations specialist Dmitri Pastuhhov said.

The Ministry of Rural Affairs was told to cut €1,560,604. Over €1 million will be saved from in-house operating expenses. The ministry will dial back trips and trainings and save on rent.

Spokesperson for the ministry Martin-Erich Torjus said that online events can also help save money as trainings and meetings can be held over the internet, while remote working possibilities will help the ministry save on rental space.

The activity support for organizations funded from the ministry’s budget will be slashed by over half a million euros, with project and operating costs targeted.

Torjus did not say which organizations are looking at cutbacks but added that the ministry is looking for alternative funding options, including foreign support.

The Supreme Court was initially required to cut €145,000 but was given €148,000 to streamline its work. Director Üllar Kaljumäe said that not a single cent was allocated for support staff salaries that, unlike in the case of first and second tier courts, are not fixed.

“To compensate for the unfair treatment of court assistants and remain competitive in terms of salary level, we looked for avenues of cost-cutting ourselves, Kaljumäe said, adding that freezing analytical efforts is the biggest and most troubling cutback for the top court. “We will be temporarily stopping court practice analyses from 2022. Their main aim was to support the shaping of a common judicial practice and its development,” Kaljumäe explained.

Ten Supreme Court employees will be laid off. “Reorganization will allow us to boost the funding of activities directly tied to administration of justice,” the Supreme Court director said.

While the Office of the Riigikogu has been ordered to save €430,000, it is also looking at additional funding of €300,000, meaning that €163,000 needs to be found. The lion’s share will come from the budget line of the Riigikogu Foresight Center.

The think tank is looking at 30 percent reduced work volume or managing two major analyses instead of three annually.

Riigikogu officials looking at wage hike

Internal reorganization at the Office of the Riigikogu has found €50,000 for salary advance. The agency cut costs on printed materials, trainings and representation expenses. The budget of the Riigikogu Toimetised parliamentary magazine was cut by €16,000, with the magazine issued once a year moving forward.

The Office of the Riigikogu employs 255 people who are paid on average 8 percent less than those holding similar positions elsewhere. Salaries of legislative drafting advisers and IT specialists fall 33 percent short of the average.

At the same time, we already know that the Office of the Riigikogu and other institutions are looking at further cuts in the coming years. The third reading of the 2022 state budget is scheduled for next Wednesday.

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