The basic powers and responsibilities of local authorities shall be prescribed by the constitution or by statute. However, this provision shall not prevent the attribution to local authorities of powers and responsibilities for specific purposes in accordance with the law.
Under Article 4, paragraph 3 of the Charter, the distribution of powers and responsibilities should be based on the principle of subsidiarity, which requires that “public responsibilities” be exercised by the “authorities closest to the citizen”. This approach appears to apply to local self-government in Austria.
Municipalities’ powers have a sound written basis in the Federal Constitutional Law, which reflects the principle of subsidiarity. Apart from the provisions mentioned above, Articles 116 and 118 of the Federal Constitutional Law also stipulate that municipalities’ own sphere of competences includes all matters that exclusively or preponderantly concern their local communities and may reasonably be performed by the authorities within their municipal boundaries. Article 118 sets out a demonstrative list of matters for which municipalities are responsible.
Municipalities’ own responsibilities cover issues of local interest as defined by the respective Land, in addition to those set out by the Federal Constitutional Law. They include the police, urban and spatial planning, transport, environmental protection, water supply and sewerage, household waste collection, construction and upkeep of primary and vocational schools, as well as health (municipal hospitals) and welfare.
Delegated responsibilities include, among other things, civil registration, organisation of elections and health measures, etc.
In addition, the federation and the Länder share responsibilities with the municipalities in areas such as education and health care. However, this is not an “original” sharing system, since the constitutional distribution of powers only allocates powers either at federal or Land level. Only in a second step, municipalities derive powers from federal or Länder laws.
The Federal Constitutional Law provides that municipalities perform the tasks for which they are responsible within the framework of the legislation of the federation and the Länder on their own responsibility and without instructions.
This provision seems to comply with the principle of full and exclusive powers (Article 4, paragraph 4 of the Charter) at least to the extent that the powers assigned contain no provision for intervention by other bodies or levels of government. Nevertheless, even when they perform tasks in their own spheres of competence, local authorities are subject to supervision by both the federal and/or Land authorities.
In this connection, it should be noted that Austria does not consider itself bound by Article 4, paragraphs 2 and 5 of the Charter, which provide for local authorities to have “full discretion to exercise their initiative with regard to any matter which is not excluded from their competence nor assigned to any other authority” and in “adapting their exercise to local conditions” in cases where powers are delegated.
The Federal Constitutional Law (Article 117) recognises three main bodies of local self-government: the municipal council, the municipal board and the mayor.
Municipal council (Gemeinderat)
The municipal council is the highest authority of the municipality. Pursuant to Article 117, local councils are directly elected by the citizens, according to the same electoral principles as apply to the election of the National Council. The councils are representative and decision‑making bodies.
Municipal board (Gemeindevorstand)
Municipal boards are collegiate bodies elected by the local councils in a proportional representation voting system. In Statutory cities they are called municipal senate (Stadtsenat). In the 2,357 municipalities of Austria there are about 42,250 municipal councillors.
The Federal Constitutional Law provides that mayors are elected by local assemblies. Since 1995, however, it has allowed the Länder to deviate from this provision. So far, six Länder have adopted constitutional provisions allowing the direct election of mayors.
Mayors are the political heads of the municipalities, representing the community and chairing the municipal councils and the boards of the municipalities. They have the right to table motions and to issue instructions.
Mayors are accountable to the municipal councils for matters related to their spheres of competence. For performing all tasks delegated to the local level they are subject to the instructions of either the federal or Länder authorities, depending on whether the task in question involves a federal or Länder competence.
In the event of illegal conduct, mayors may be dismissed by the Land government on behalf of the Land or by the Land Governor on behalf of the federation.
While mayors of larger towns exercise their functions full-time, most mayors head small municipalities and fulfil their mandate alongside their normal job. During the monitoring visit, the delegation has been informed about the difficulty of small municipalities to find candidates for the position of mayor due to poor social conditions, in particular with regard to pension and unemployment schemes. Some interlocutors also expressed the fear that an increasing liability of the mayor in cases of accidents may hinder potential candidates.
Statutory cities (Statutarstädte)
Although there is no legal distinction between different types of municipalities, some cities have their own statute/own constitution (Stadtverfassung) and are so-called “statutory cities” (Statutarstädte).
In accordance with Article 116, paragraph 3 of the Federal Constitutional Law, this status is granted to municipalities with at least 20,000 inhabitants, if this does not jeopardise Land interests. The status involves a specific kind of Land law, which requires the approval of the Federal Government. At present, 15 towns have statutes of their own1, mostly because they are regional capitals or for historic reasons, but the option is open to other municipalities if the aforementioned conditions are met.
The major difference between “ordinary” municipalities and cities with their own statute is that statutory cities hold the functions of administrative districts and have to carry out those administrative tasks within their territories, which are usually performed by various administrative agencies.
The mayors are both the heads of the elected local governments and of the federated state territorial administrations.
The specific case of the capital city Vienna
Vienna has 1,6 million inhabitants for an area of 414 square kilometres. It was an integral part of Lower Austria until 1922 and has today a special statute being a Land of its own, a municipality and a statutory city. The municipal council therefore also acts as Land Parliament, the municipal senate as Land government and the mayor as Land Governor.
Due to its double status as both a Land and a municipality, Vienna in the fiscal equalisation scheme receives is share both as Land and as municipality.
As capital city Vienna has no specific rights, with the exception that it hosts all federal institutions.
Vienna’s double political and administrative system is in line with the Congress Recommendation 219 (2007) on the Status of capital cities calling for a democratically elected municipality in the capital city. The city councillors perform a dual function, since they are elected to both the municipal council and the Land Parliament. In other words, they are both city councillors and Land deputies.
Vienna is subdivided into 23 municipal districts, which have their own district parliaments with certain powers. They are headed by elected district chairpersons. The powers and financial resources of the districts seem very limited.
The mayor chairs the municipal senate and convenes its meetings. Beneath the Mayor there are the executive city councillors as heads of the municipal authority’s working groups, the 23 municipal district chairpersons and all municipal employees. The Mayor represents the city abroad.
Austrian Association of Municipalities and Austrian Association of Cities and Towns
Under Article 115 of the Federal Constitutional Law, two associations are competent to represent the interests of local authorities: the Austrian Association of Municipalities (Österreichischer Gemeindebund), representing smaller towns and the Austrian Association of Cities and Towns (Österreichischer Städtebund) representing larger cities.
Membership of these associations is voluntary. They are both private-law entities and are funded solely by contributions from the member communities. They are entitled by constitution or law not only to participate in the appointment of some Austrian delegates to the EU Committee of the Regions, but also to conclude the agreement on a consultation mechanism and the Austrian Stability Pact.
Their principal tasks are to defend the interests of municipalities in the periodic negotiations of the Fiscal Equalisation Law (Finanzausgleichsgesetz), in the negotiations on intergovernmental revenue sharing and express their point of view on the many bills that originate in the national parliament.
The associations (like the Länder) pay very close attention to the limitations on local self-government which may result from certain international agreements. In particular, they have adopted various resolutions to prevent agreements such as those of the GATS (General Agreement on Trade and Services) covering public services like water, health, urban transport and social services which are currently delivered by the Länder or municipalities.
Status of elected representatives
In addition to the Federal Constitutional Law, the status of local elected representatives is determined by the Länder local government acts and acts governing local elections. The relevant legislation must not be contrary to the Federal Constitutional Act, in particular, Article 115. Different legislation on local self‑government applies in each of the nine Länder.
Depending on the Land legislation, local representatives’ terms of office are five or six years. Elected representatives may resign at any time without restrictions. A restriction does, however, apply following their resignation: they may not hold the post of president of the Administrative Court within a period of four years.
Land legislation makes provision for the work of elected representatives: civil servants are released from their duties for a specific number of hours.
Elected representatives receive allowances to compensate for loss of earnings and to cover expenses. The reimbursement of the expenses incurred while carrying out elective duties varies from Land to Land. The amount reimbursed is not adequate everywhere, and in some Länder there is a clear shortage of candidatures for the position of municipal councillors.
There are special Land laws governing salaries and pension schemes for the elected representatives and full‑time mayors of large towns. Small municipalities are, however, left out of these schemes and their mayors suffer from inadequate social security cover. Mayoral salaries for municipalities under 500 inhabitants range from €11,967 (US$16,403) per year in Burgenland to €21,910 (US$30,033) in Tyrol, and for cities over 20,000 inhabitants from €88,536 (US$121,360) in Lower Austria to €110,670 (US$151,700) in Upper Austria. Improvements in local councillors’ position (social cover, insurance liability, etc.) are requested by many elected officials.
Women’s representation in the various Austrian elective assemblies and in the various executive bodies is relatively weak and political reforms are needed to improve this situation. The number of female mayors increased from forty-five in 2003 to seventy-three in 2005, a significant increase, but still only a 3.1% share of the leadership positions.
 Eisenstadt, Rust, Klagenfurt, Villach, Wiener Neustadt, St. Pölten, Krems, Waidhofen/Ybbs, Linz, Steyr, Wels, Salzburg, Graz, Innsbruck, Wien.