Public funds for private hobbies

The government has opened the coffers of the National Development and Social Fund — ie. the cash-for-passports piggy bank — and is busy spending the money they made selling unlimited access to other people’s countries.

The latest beneficiary of this largesse is something teetering on the verge of extinction.

No, not trees.

I’m not talking about open space, either, or a sense of personal responsibility.  That last one went extinct several years ago.

I’m talking about band clubs.

In a heroic effort to save this rapidly disappearing vestige of Malta’s heritage from fading into obscurity, parliamentary secretary for communities and citizenship Alex Muscat has announced that the country’s richest slush fund will be buying up private properties occupied by band clubs that are at risk of eviction because they can’t pay their rent.

In claiming the government would indulge in this financial largesse without touching public funds or affecting the Maltese taxpayer, it must have slipped his mind who the IIP slush fund supposedly belongs to.

Anyway, once they’ve bought these properties with your money, the government will then rent them to the very same band clubs who can’t pay their rent to their current landlords, and will do so at subsidized prices (ie. subsidized by you).

Muscat said, “Thanks to funds that have been generated from Malta’s initiatives that lead to residency and citizenship, we are now in a position to provide peace of mind to hundreds of people who hold band clubs close to their hearts. In so doing, we are providing an advantageous solution to the property owners, since they will be offered a competitive price according to the current market.”

What if the owner just wants their own property back? If the rule of law were operating unimpeded, then these properties would finally be returned to their original owners, who might very well want the use of them again.

In such cases, the government ‘doesn’t rule out’ purchasing other properties in the same area for homeless band clubs. I wonder who they’ll buy them from? Will they go after one of the many vacant properties in village cores? Or will it be some new development puked up by one of the usual suspects? Watch that space closely.

Clubs were already protected under an old rent law that has shackled property owners to tenants who pay rent well below current market rates, often for years, or who don’t pay it at all. But recent legal challenges by exasperated owners have resulted in evictions, hence the crisis.

The solution does seem decidedly odd.

Buying property using public funds in order to bail out tenants who haven’t been paying their already lower-than-market-value rent, only to rent those properties back to those same non-paying tenants, with taxpayers being stuck with the difference.

Whoever’s operating that particular investment fund may want to re-run their numbers.

It was just over a year ago that Culture Minister Jose Herrera announced that band clubs, fireworks factories and other folks responsible for village feasts would be able to tap €450,000 in funding.

Herrera launched another €150,000 financial aid scheme for feast associations, this time to fund banners, lights and decorations.

And earlier this year, the Arts Council dished out €170,000 as part of the annual funding that goes to fireworks factories.

“Fireworks are not just a part of our local cultural heritage,” Minister Herrera said, “they bring together a community of enthusiasts who on a daily basis work to produce pyrotechnical shows of the highest standards, and we should always seek to support their efforts by investing in the infrastructure needed to improve important elements such as safety.”

By ‘community of enthusiasts’ he means ‘people with a hobby’. A very noisy hobby, yes. One that hurled me out of bed at 8am with fears of Libyan invasion, or the walls tumbling down around me due to a sonic attack.

I often wondered why they wouldn’t take up a more peaceful hobby, like stamp collecting, or photography, or Malta’s rich heritage of artisanal crafts. Anyone for reading? No…?

I suppose some people simply enjoy deafening noise, and so everyone else must enjoy it, too. That includes the joy of paying for it.

Are band clubs really in danger of dying out? Will the village festa fade into obscurity with one final flurry of petards? Maybe it’s just a perception, but they always seemed pretty popular to me.

Here’s a helpful suggestion. Anytime my monthly budget gets a little tight, I immediately set aside money for rent, and cut down on non-essential spending. For some people, that might be cigarettes. For others, it could be dining out or excess monthly expenses like television.

Perhaps festa enthusiasts might consider spending a little less money on high explosives and put it towards rent instead? I mean, would anyone really notice a few less petards?

I haven’t seen recent numbers, but I recall a National Statistics Office (NSO) report from 2012 saying village festas cost an average of €12,155 per year. That number would rocket upwards if band clubs and fireworks factories were included — in some cases beyond €100,000.

A lot of these costs are funded by donations — of money and free labour — including money put up by the participants themselves to fund the hobbies they love. Surely if their beloved band club were about to be evicted, then supporters of this hobby would come together to raise the money?

Property must be on Labour’s mind because band club rents aren’t the only housing expense about to be funded by the passport slush fund. The government is also planning to act as a guarantor for applicants who don’t qualify for home loans.

Social Accommodation Minister Roderick Galdes said the €3 million scheme will apply to some 40 families who can’t get a loan because they don’t have life insurance.

If you can’t get life insurance at all, or you can’t afford the higher rates because you had a serious medical condition in the past, simply roll up to the Housing Authority with a note from your doctor explaining your medical condition, pay the annual participation fee for the scheme, and the government will see that you get a letter to give to your bank telling them to give you the loan.

It’s a win-win situation for the building industry and the wannabe homeowner.

Still, guaranteeing bank loans for people who don’t qualify for bank loans seems to me a strange use of public funds. Why not take a closer look at the life insurance requirement, or put money into geared-to-income social housing?

If worst comes to worst, I suppose they could always evict the band clubs and use the properties they purchased as social housing.


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