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[Op-Ed] High-end Welfare Center

Posted October. 21, 2009 08:52,   


The city government building of Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, drew attention last year after President Lee Myung-bak said, “The building of Yongin City Hall is better than Seoul City Hall’s.” The Yongin building cost 165.6 billion won (142 million U.S. dollars) and is 50 percent larger than Seoul’s. Not to be outdone, Yongin’s suburban neighbor Seongnam has poured 322.2 billion won (276 million dollars) to build its new building. In advanced economies, many provincial and municipal governments are housed in more modest buildings to save taxpayers’ money.

The Public Administration and Security Ministry has belatedly stepped in to curb excessive spending on office buildings. Feasibility studies conducted by outside research agencies are now required if provincial governments want to build public buildings costing more than 50 billion won (42.8 million dollars). Municipal governments had previously been allowed to choose the research agencies. Since June this year, however, municipal governments have had to use agencies chosen by the minister of public administration and security. Before the ministry stepped in, provincial governments and parliament should have tackled the matter voluntarily.

The plan by Seoul’s wealthy southern district of Gangnam to build a welfare center in Dogok-dong has stirred controversy. Equipped with a musical theater, health club and other cultural and leisure facilities, the center will reportedly cost 85.5 billion won (73.3 million dollars). Public neighborhood offices since long ago have been turned into welfare centers equipped with cultural and leisure facilities for the benefit of residents. The construction cost for the Gangnam center has risen due to high property prices and the 600-seat theater. A Gangnam official said, “Gangnam lacks performance halls, so following the advice of cultural experts, we decided to build the theater,” adding, “Everybody can use the facility even if they aren’t Dogok-dong residents.”

The annual budget of Jeungpyeong, North Chungcheong Province, is 133.9 billion won (114.7 million dollars) and that of Busan’s Jung district is 102.4 billion won (87.8 million dollars). The two areas have spent such amounts thanks to assistance from the central government. Provinces with smaller budgets can either envy or criticize Gangnam for spending a huge amount on the welfare center. Nobody, however, can question the district for using its own money to build a center for its residents. Gangnam receives no financial assistance from the Seoul city government. Residents who pay more taxes have the right to keep their health and enjoy cultural performances at a welfare center. The center has no reason to be the target of jealousy.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)