San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Escazú Mayor Barahona: Local government can work

From the print edition

Escazú is a former small town that, over time, has become the most Gringo-friendly western suburb of San José. 

Anchored by the Mall Multiplaza Escazú commercial complex, the city is in the midst of a property boom that sailed right through Costa Rica’s 2008-2010 economic downturn, with only a small hiccup. 

Despite its expatriate-driven flavor, Escazú retains a core of solid, traditional Costa Rican families who have collectively pulled off a small political revolution. The Yunta Progresista Escazuceña, a grassroots Escazú-only political party, wrested control of their municipal government away from national political parties in the 2010 election. 

The word “yunta” in the party’s name is emblematic: A coffee-hauling cart pulled by oxen is a traditional symbol of Costa Rica; a yunta is the yoke that binds the oxen to the cart. So, yunta carries an unmistakable work-oriented, “let’s pull together” implication. With the “Escazú Progressive Yoke-Pulling Party” in power, this town’s municipal government is no longer just a local part of the patronage system of a national political party. 

Starting in 2011 under its energetic mayor, Arnoldo Barahona, the once-sleepy Escazú government has become aggressively active. The Tico Times caught up with Barahona at his office on the northern edge of Escazú’s city plaza on Aug. 21.

Excerpts follow:

TT: Mr. Mayor, how did you find things when you took office, and what were the principal changes you made?

AB: There was an operating deficit of ₡507 million [$1 million], but at least there was little debt. We started by setting up basic cost controls, [including] very little new hiring. Then we worked on revenues. 

We changed the scale for commercial operating licenses and made it more progressive, so that bigger businesses pay more. And we also auctioned off ₡500 million [$1 million] in new liquor licenses. We started to update property valuations. That has raised ₡600 million [$1.2 million]. We’ve also moved ahead with financial leverage, [including] a very favorable ₡2 billion [$4 million], 20-year loan from Banco Nacional at a very good rate, $800,000 in non-reimbursable funds from the International Development Bank, and a ₡900 million [$1.8 million] loan from the Costa Rican government’s Municipal Assistance Institute.

That’s a lot of debt very quickly.

Yes, but we’re supervised. Our budget and debt levels must be approved by the Costa Rican government’s Comptroller’s Office. We’re well within their debt service guidelines; they allow a limit of 15 percent of income for debt service, and with these loans we’ll be at 6 percent.

So what are your spending priorities?

We’re focused on three areas: security, public works and social support.

First, security. For this I’ve studied the approach of Álvaro Uribe [the successful Colombian mayor of Medellín in 1982 who went on to become Colombia’s president].  When [Uribe] was mayor, he emphasized quantity and not quality of police forces. Here in Escazú, we have 60 policemen. We haven’t hired any more, but we have put 54 of them, 90 percent, on the beat, with only six in administrative offices. We’re emphasizing training, mobility, communications  and coordination.

Second, public works. We’ve greatly stepped up street repairs, bridge widening and construction of retaining walls. We’ve also purchased three high-compacting garbage trucks. Major new public works on the drawing board range from the ordinary, but necessary, [such as] new storm drains, to the emblematic, [such as] a mega-gym, sports complex and swimming pool. The total public works and equipment-purchasing budget this year is $5.5 million.

Third, on the social front, we’re stressing job-oriented education. We’re budgeting {100 million [$200,000] for teachers at our Municipal Education Center. We will partner with INA [National Training Institute, a Costa Rican government trade school] to give diplomas in things like English and food preparation. The emphasis is on skills for employment.

Escazú seems to be booming, with so many shopping centers, residential towers and office centers. Do you see growth as sustainable? 

Escazú is the default direction for expansion of the San José metropolitan area. The city is hemmed in by dense populations already in place north and south. There’s some room going east, but nothing like coming west. The growth has been somewhat disorderly.

For instance, municipal mandates for parking spaces to accompany condo developments and shopping centers weren’t put in place until 2005. But overall, expansion is going well. Bosques de Escazú, for instance, is a tower development in which all units have been pre-sold. This is a very good sign.

What has been your overall goal as mayor of Escazú?

Two things: first, to show that local government can be made to work if citizens get involved. My goal as mayor is to generate such good value for the people of Escazú that they will willingly update the value of their properties in our property registry. After all, the rate is only a quarter percent per year. 

And nationally, we want to demonstrate the power of grassroots organizing to solve local problems. If there were more yuntas, national political parties would have to take notice and provide better municipal government.

Comments are closed.