The wheels were set in motion during the March 2005 local elections, when new mayors and councilors were elected. However, the changes will not really be felt until 1 July, when fiscal decentralization becomes effective and the municipalities begin to take on their new responsibilities.
Assuming major obligations
One of the major obligations that the municipalities will assume is the management of more than 27,000 employees in the public sector - mainly in education and health - who will be transferred from the state budget to the municipal budget. The municipalities will also be responsible for funding their own operations through local taxation and other sources of revenue.
Facing the challenge of implementing this aspect of decentralization, the Ministry for Local Self-Government requested assistance from the international community in the country in training the municipal civil servants who will be taking on these responsibilities.
The OSCE, the World Bank and USAID agreed to co-operate closely in preparing the civil servants to handle tasks such as budgeting and financial management, each of the organizations taking care of different aspects of the training.
"For decentralization to succeed, municipalities must become financially viable, which means that investment in professionally-trained public administrators is essential," the Head of the Mission, Ambassador Carlos Pais, told a training session in Skopje in May 2005 jointly sponsored by the three organizations.
"The Government has invested heavily in the implementation of decentralization but there is not much time for rehearsals before the curtain goes up; much remains to be done to ensure that those entrusted with implementing the laws are able to carry out their tasks," he said.
The decentralization process requires not only that the Government hand over many of its traditional responsibilities, but also that the municipalities are able to assume them. This means that the latter must have competent officials with a real understanding of the ongoing changes, explained Philipp Stiel, Head of the Mission's Public Administration Reform Unit.
"Our Mission has been supporting the decentralization process through technical assistance, including training and capacity-building of local stakeholders. At this stage, the OSCE is among the organizations most heavily involved in providing assistance in this area," he noted.
Comprehensive training in two phases
The training consisted of two phases: the first was aimed at providing the future trainers with practical information on the financial aspects of self-government, while the second targeted the municipal officers dealing directly with budgets and financial management.
Participants had the opportunity to practice drafting a municipal budget, classifying and tracking expenses, and devising income generation activities. They were also provided with reference manuals on the legal basics of municipal finance and other related laws.
One of trainees was the Director of Public Revenue Office in Gostivar, Farije Aliu, who was very satisfied with the comprehensiveness of the programme.
"We were trained how to organize public campaigns to increase income accumulation and tax payments by citizens, as well as the process of projecting expenses foreseen by the mayor, the council and the administration," she said.
In addition, the trainees got the chance to play the role of special advisers to the mayor, working on the promotion of municipal activities and disseminating public information, as well as strategic planning and leadership skills.
Monitoring the progress of decentralization
The first concrete results will be visible in the coming months, as the handover continues and the municipalities gradually take on their new responsibilities. The Mission will continue to monitor the ogress of the decentralization process and provide further training and other technical assistance.
Once the handover process is complete and decisions on local issues are being taken at the local level, citizens will be able to enjoy the benefits of more accessible and responsive local government.