“You have had a remarkable career,” gushed the New Zealand Ambassador to the Philippines David Strachan paying a courtesy call to Mayor Joseph Ejercito Estrada on Wednesday, Feb. 3. Before they sat down for a hearty one-on-one, Manila’s hizzoner gave the ambassador arrival honors fit for a visiting high-level dignitary, including the police equivalent of military honors, a trooping of the line and the symbolic key to Manila.
Estrada ushered his visitor upstairs into his second floor City Hall office where they sat down for a warm 25-minute chat over coffee. “Do you have plans for a national office?” envoy Stratchan asked the mayor.
“Being mayor is my last hurrah,” Estrada demurred. He talked about his initiatives and the enormous problems he faces as CEO of the Philippines’ national capital and most important city, being the center of trade, commerce, finance, and governance.
He winced that after World War II, “we were the second-richest in Asia. We were richer than Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea, and much, much richer than Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore. Now, we are second to the last.”
“In the south, we have had a secessionist movement for more than 40 years,” he added.
“You are very popular,” said Strachan, adding “I have read a lot about you.” To which the veteran of more than 100 movies in 30 years of movie-making, replied, “as a movie actor I played the roles of the marginalized. These people made me their hero.”
“You are a kingmaker,” the ambassador pointed out. He asked Estrada whom he will support for president. “They [the presidential candidates] are all my friends,” the mayor laughed.
Strachan then inquired, “what’s the secret of your success in Philippine politics?” “Well,” Estrada replied, “you simply have to work for the greater good of the greatest number.”
In Manila, the greatest number of people are the poor. “Surveys show Manila has the greatest number of squatters in the Philippines,” Estrada said later in an interview. Half of Metropolitan Manila’s squatters live in Manila. These informal settlers test to the limits the city’s amenities. Non-residents keep trooping to the national capital —for education, for work, for livelihood, for housing. “In Manila’s hospitals,” estimates Joey Cabresa, “some 300,000 babies are born every year. Easily two-thirds are from mothers who do not live in the city.” The city has a population of more than 2 million, half of whom are below 25 years old.
When Estrada was elected mayor of Manila in mid-2013, he was surprised to discover how enormous and daunting the city’s problems were. Having served as mayor of nearby San Juan City for nearly 17 years and president of the Philippines for 30 months, Estrada thought he would have an easy sailing. He was wrong.
In 2013, Mayor Estrada found Manila saddled with more than P4.44 billion in debts. Cash was a low P230 million, not even enough to run the city for a year nor cover payroll for one month. The city had rung up an electricity tab of almost P1 billion, of which P613 million was long overdue, on top of unpaid P58 million in water bills.
The city was dirty. City Hall itself was a veritable pigsty with rodents and cockroaches having a run of its innards and corridors. Crime was rampant. Drugs penetrated nine of every 10 of the city’s 896 barangays. The police and City Hall employees were bereft of morale and energy. Police allowances had been withheld for three years. City employees lacked incentive pay. The city was ill-prepared for any disaster.
Quickly, Estrada instituted reforms to boost the city’s coffers. Real property taxes had been frozen for 20 years, complained the mayor. Property values were gingerly negotiated to enable landowners to save on taxes, after shelling out “extraneous” fees.
“Without higher revenues, I cannot render even the most basic services,” Estrada said.
The updating of property taxes reflected a near doubling of property values, frozen since 1996. The revaluation more than doubled real estate tax revenues from P3.04 billion in 2012, P6.7 billion in 2015 and to an expected P7 billion in 2016. By the time of his second State of the City address, Estrada exulted “Manila is debt-free!”
On a related front, collections from business permit fees also increased, by 53 percent in 2014 to P314.55 million in 2015 from 2014.
The Department of Finance has cited Manila as one of only two cities in the Philippines to have properly updated their property and business taxes.
By mid-2015, the city government had built P5-billion General Fund, money that is funneled to security, infrastructure, education, health services, among other basic services. “I assure Manilans every centavo of taxes collected goes to city coffers,” Estrada declared, implying serious leakages in previous administrations.
On the health front, Manila has rehabilitated its hospitals (there are six), using P500 million in rehab funds, and unheard of for any Philippine city, put up a Dialysis Center with no less than 40 dialysis machines. “Dialysis in Manila is free,” says Estrada. In other places, he notes wryly, “liver patients just have to wait until they die, without having dialysis.”
The mayor takes singular pride that city hospitals offer specialization in different branches of medicine. This is not surprising. Manila’s city-owned school of medicine is among the best, if not the best, in the country, its graduates habitually topping board exams.
Estrada was aghast to discover that his critics, including some insiders in city-owned hospitals, have tried to sabotage his socialistic health care program. Patients were being charged horrendous fees.
He tells Manilans, “any hospital director, official or employee found collecting fees will not only be dismissed. They will be made criminally liable.” One hospital director has been fired for such an offense.
On the crime front, indexed crimes have fallen, by 29.7 percent, in 2015, from 2013, or from 11,468 to 8,842.
Crime solution efficiency has improved, from 24.55 percent in 2013 to 38.05 percent in 2015. Last year, the city arrested its No. 1 criminal suspect, Jonathan Bassey. In 2015 alone, 317 drug pushers and 985 drug users were arrested while 8,689 grams of shabu were seized.
Mayor Estrada gave the police force P136 million in back allowances. The Manila Police District got 41 new mobile patrol cars and 110 electric personal transporters.
Meanwhile, Estrada released the fourth tranche of salary increases for city employees salary. In 2015, on top of the mandatory 13th month pay, the mayor declared a 14th month, what he calls an incentive pay for deserving employees.
In 2015, Manila was declared the Most Competitive City in the entire Philippines. It was also declared the No. 1 city in infrastructure, availability of utilities, connection to ICT, number of ATMs, transparency, economic governance, and compliance with national directives. It is No. 2 in health services and presence of financial institutions.