San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Public sector

Costa Rica's Solís: No more taxpayer-funded parties at public agencies

Is the party over for employees at the Costa Rican Oil Refinery?

President Luis Guillermo Solís on Wednesday issued an order banning all public agencies from using taxpayer funds to hold recreational events for their employees. The president also instructed top officials at all public agencies to seek to eliminate any provision in collective bargaining agreements that grants “abusive” benefits.

The presidential directive responds to a wave of outrage on social media Tuesday after officials from Costa Rica’s refinery, or RECOPE, published a document seeking a ₡6.8 million ($12,600) public bid to organize a Christmas party for a group of RECOPE employees. The document was deleted later in the day and replaced with a letter from RECOPE’s Supplies Department stating that the contract bid had been cancelled.

RECOPE Executive President Sara Salazar Badilla in a public statement earlier in the day confirmed that RECOPE’s Contracts Department on Oct. 30 published the requirements of a public bid for a provider to organize and produce a party for employees from its San José, Alajuela and Cartago offices, scheduled for Dec. 4.

Salazar said she sought the immediate withdrawal of the tender, which had a deadline of 9 a.m. on Nov. 4. She called the action “superfluous and abusive,” and noted that since Oct. 20 she had expressed her opposition to using taxpayer funds for the party, even though it was stipulated in, and allowed by, the agency’s collective bargaining agreement dating back to the 1970s.

RECOPE is currently in the process of negotiating changes to its collective agreement, and one of the administration’s proposals “aims to eliminate that specific benefit,” Salazar said.

The Public Services Regulatory Authority, or ARESEP, in September rejected a request by RECOPE for a hike in fuel prices that would be used to fund employees’ extra-salary benefits.

Among other issues, ARESEP objected to RECOPE’s request for ₡5 billion ($9.2 million) to fund benefits from the collective agreement signed by RECOPE’s union and the agency’s administration in the ’70s.

The regulatory authority ruled that extra-salary benefits, including Christmas or any other parties, were not part of fuel costs, as they “are extra-salary benefits stipulated by Article 107 of RECOPE’s collective bargaining agreement.”

Outrage

Salazar’s statements sparked reaction from several sectors ranging from public advocacy groups to Casa Presidencial, and even RECOPE’s own press office. Presidency Minister Sergio Alfaro posted a statement saying the government condemns the use of public funds to pay for parties. Alfaro said the issue is not consistent with President Solís’ calls for the rational and efficient use of public resources.

“Public funds should only be used for improving public services, not for parties,” he said.

ARESEP spokeswoman Carolina Mora on Tuesday evening said the agency would seek a formal explanation from RECOPE on the sources of funds that would be used to pay for the party, since the agency had rejected the fuel price hike request.

William Hernández, secretary general of RECOPE’s union, argued that the employee party is authorized by the collective agreement and “is still pending negotiations.” He said union members disagree that using taxpayer money for a Christmas party is abusive, because “it is something public and private companies commonly do.”

The union leader also said that claims that the party would include only 300 employees were false, because it would be an event for more than 750 employees “ranging from managers to janitors.” But a description of the public bid on RECOPE’s website clearly seeks a company to offer “catering and entertainment services for 300 people.”

RECOPE currently has a staff of over 1,800 employees.

The controversy extended to the Legislative Assembly later on Tuesday, as lawmakers from several parties weighed in on the issue.

Citizen Action Party (PAC) leader Marco Vinicio Redondo said that despite the controversy, RECOPE would be forced to pay for the party because it is a current provision of the collective agreement.

“Unless there is a change in the collective agreement, there is nothing left to do but to pay for the party,” he said.

PAC founder and current lawmaker Ottón Solís strongly criticized RECOPE, saying, “Spending that kind of money on a party it’s nothing but theft.”

Otto Guevara from the Libertarian Movement Party said RECOPE’s abusive spending on wages has been publicly exposed for several years.

“The public rejects RECOPE’s abusive spending,” he said. “It’s a refinery that stopped refining oil in 2011, and yet they go and make a public bid like this that only confirms the irresponsible manner in which they spent public funds.”

The only support for the refinery came from Broad Front Party leader Gerardo Vargas Varela, who said the controversy “is nothing but another example of the smear campaign that’s been orchestrated against public-sector employees.”

Leaders of advocacy group “No a los privilegios y abusos de los sindicatos costarricenses” (“No to the Costa Rican unions’ privileges and abuses”) told the daily La Prensa Libre that it’s an outrage that public agencies spend most of their resources on salaries and invest next to nothing on public works.

“Yet they never forget to allocate funds for parties, extra-salary incentives, bonuses and privileges,” the group noted on its Facebook profile, while calling for a protest against the perks. That demonstration is scheduled for next Sunday at 9:30 a.m. at Plaza de la Democracia in downtown San José.

A Western-themed party

The controversial tender titled “Christmas gathering 2015CD-000596-01” described the requirements of a contract to plan and carry out a cowboy-themed party for 300 people at RECOPE’s recreational center in Belén, Heredia. It required the selected company to supply food, decorations and entertainment. The budget represented a per-person cost of ₡22,667 ($41.95), which by local standards might seem like an over-the-top affair.

The food section of the tender stipulated that the company should provide “prime meat cuts for a BBQ, including tenderloin, chicken and sausage,” plus various sides of Panamanian peppers, cassava with Cuban garlic sauce, chili and other food.

In addition, another BBQ menu included pork cuts, fried pork, or chicharrones, ham and a number of salads. Appetizers included ceviche, shrimp, white beans and meat, and Caribbean snacks.

The list also requested a welcoming cocktail, three types of soda drinks as well as four dessert options including chocolate mousse, suspiro Limeño (a Peruvian dessert), cognac truffles and cajetas, a Tico traditional sweet.

The tender stated that the selected company should provide 30 tables for 10 people each and 300 chairs, all of which should be placed under outdoor canopies. It also sought 12 additional tables for a buffet, a food station, and utensils, plates, glasses and cowboy decorations, including hay bales, checkered tablecloths and other chunches.

Entertainment options included the hiring of a “renowned professional DJ, audio equipment, intelligent lighting, laser lights, fog and other special effects that should be computer-operated.”

Finally, other goodies included a mechanical bull and live music provided by a traditional Tico-style band, or Cimarrona.

See the original document removed from RECOPE’s website:

Contact L. Arias at larias@ticotimes.net

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