On Tuesday, Zagreb Mayor, Tomislav Tomasevic, rejected media speculation that the city might end its free textbooks scheme, and commented on criticisms over earlier announcement about ending the costly stay-at-home parenting aid program.
The city-funded textbooks cost the city about 40 million kuna (€5.3m) every year, in a scheme introduced years ago by Tomasevic’s populist predecessor, Milan Bandic. Another scheme introduced by Bandic concerned one-off subsidies for children. The program, involved handing out families 1,800 kuna (€240) for their first child, 3,600 kuna (€480) for their second child, and 54,000 kuna (€7,200) for every third and any subsequent child born in the family.
Although the program was presented as a scheme to incentivize having children and encourage stay-at-home parenting, critics say it did not yield much in the way of improving the demographics over the years. At the same time, the cost of the program skyrocketed. Mayor Tomasevic, who took office earlier this year, announced the axing of the program as part of wider effort to cut costs considering that the city’s and its utility companies are thought to be more than 8 billion kuna (€1.1bn) in debt.
The scheme had cost the city about 1.6 billion kuna (€213m) since 2016.
“As far as vulnerable families (taken off the program) are concerned, they will now qualify for municipal and government welfare programs, which have not been applied to them before because of the stay-at-home parent scheme,” Tomasevic said at a news conference.
Tomasevic, who belongs to a tiny left-wing green party, was heavily criticized over his plans to end the scheme by right-wing and conservative groups.
“Children will attend kindergarten, and mothers who are currently stay-at-home parents will be able to look for a job,” Tomasevic said, adding that seven days from now, when the 2022 city budget is scheduled to be presented, he would explain compensation measures in more detail.
Nearly all kindergartens in Zagreb are operated and funded by city authorities, although parents still have to pay monthly fees. The kindergartens notoriously struggle with limited capacities, meaning that the demand is greater than the supply, which led to detailed rules about who can qualify for kindergarten, which prioritize low-income families and working parents. In 2019, the base co-pay fee per child was 1,300-1,900 kuna (€170-250) per month.
“New kindergartens will be built, as part of a three-year plan for investments in kindergartens… We are not thinking about increasing the fee for kindergarten care,” Tomasevic said on Tuesday.
He said that the funding spent on stay-at-home parents was equal to wages for more than 6,000 employees of city’s kindergartens, adding that the cutting of the scheme would not result in any net savings as the money would be used to expand kindergarten capacity instead. “Demographic policies in Croatia cannot be pursued at the local level because they results in overall depopulation, with families from the provinces choosing to move to cities that have these schemes like Zagreb,” he said.
Tomasevic was asked to comment on potential lawsuits filed by stay-at-home parents who would be left without funding. He said that their rights were not acquired rights based on any law, but rather aid handed out based on a decision by the former mayor. “There are no actual contracts signed with stay-at-home parents, so I don’t see how they could legally seek compensation by suing the city,” Tomasevic said.
As for free city-funded textbooks for primary and secondary school students, “there will be no changes next year… the city will provide them free of charge,” Tomasevic said.