Local authorities shall be entitled, within national economic policy, to adequate financial resources of their own, of which they may dispose freely within the framework of their powers.
The Contemporary Commentary on the Charter stresses that Article 9.1 establishes the right of local authorities to have their own resources and the freedom to spend them according to their own judgment. Accordingly, states are expected to ensure that local authorities have the legal, budgetary, and fiscal capacity to make use of these rights and implement their policies.
The issue of resourcing local government is a contentious topic in Estonia, particularly regarding the adequacy of funding and the degree of financial autonomy which local government possesses. The Contemporary Commentary points out that Article 9.1 articulates two important financial principles, namely, that local authorities should have their own financial resources and that they should be free to decide how to spend those resources. Accordingly, states must ensure that local authorities have the legal, budgetary, and fiscal capacity to make use of these rights and implement the policies they adopt. As stated by the Contemporary Commentary, the wording “adequate financial resources” requires measures “to ensure proportionality between mandatory functions of local authorities and the funding available”.
Article 157 of the Estonian Constitution decrees that municipalities shall have independent budgets for which the bases and procedure for formation shall be provided by a law. Consequently, local government councils approve the annual budget, which is prepared on an accrual basis. Local governments must prepare development plans and adopt a budget strategy for a minimum period of four years. The Local Government Financial Management Act provides the principles of preparation, adoption, implementation and reporting of local government budgets.
Local government in Estonia carries out both own and delegated competencies. A Supreme Court judgment categorises local government functions as ‘local government functions arising from the law (also ‘mandatory local government functions’) and other functions (also ‘voluntary local government functions’), the fulfilment of which is not prescribed by law’. Irrespective of their size or income, local governments perform similar functions and offer the same services to their citizens. However, demography, geography and socio-economic factors affect the financial capability of each municipality.
Local governments receive support from the state budget. One type of support is the equalisation fund, which supplements the income of municipalities with a small revenue base. The equalisation fund comes entirely from the state budget and is calculated using a formula. Another type of formula-based support is the support fund, which consists of sectoral support for specific purposes (e.g., support for teachers' labour costs, hobby group support, support for social services, road maintenance support, etc.). W were . Project-based support is also provided from the state budget, for example, for investments (e.g., the European Union's structural funds).
The Supreme Court judgment referred to in its decision above is unequivocal in its pronouncement that ‘the legislature must also make certain that the money allocated for performance of local government functions be distinct from the funds allocated for performance of national duties. ‘This allows a local authority to understand what funds are meant for deciding and organising local issues. This, in turn, allows for deciding how to use the money allocated for resolving local issues. In addition, the distinction between funds allocated for local government functions and national functions allows for evaluating the sufficiency of the funds allocated for local government functions’. However, in practice, these levels of adequacy and autonomy
There is a high dependence on grants from central government, many of which are earmarked for delegated functions. Figure 3 shows the source of local government revenue in Estonia.
Estonia’s subnational governments receive 1.5% of total general government tax revenue, which is the smallest share of all OECD countries (the OECD average is 20%). Measured as a share of GDP, the Estonian subnational government share is 0.3%, again the smallest share of all OECD countries (OECD average is 5%). Interlocutors frequently referred to the inadequacy of the funding.
A five-year review states that, as part of the 2017 administrative reform, political promises were made that the revenue base of local governments would be increased. Since then, the local government share of income tax was gradually increased in total by 0,3 percentage points to 11,96% (i.e., approx. 34 million euros in each fiscal year at 2021 prices) and the equalisation fund by 25 million euros. In total, local government revenue base increased by 59 million euros, or 4.2%. However, the Association of Estonian Cities and Municipalities asserts that ‘between 2020-2023 the equalisation fund has grown by 0.2%. At the same time the CPI increased 19.4% in 2022 as compared to 2021 and personal income tax revenues grew 12.64 % (on a cash basis)’.
Interlocutors from local government level argue that despite the recent increases, local government revenue is not adequate to ensure fiscal capacity to implement the obligatory and desired policies. The Association of Estonian Cities and Rural Municipalities has made the following proposals to the state to ensure that local governments have sufficient financial resources: increasing the financial autonomy of the local governments and raising the share of income tax allocated to them; improving the formula used by the equalisation fund; extending the list of local taxes (e.g., tourist tax, sales tax), aiming to increase the right, capacity and responsibility of the local governments in shaping their own tax revenues.
While they have the legal and constitutional autonomy to decide how to spend their own resources, the local authorities’ resources are inadequate and Estonian municipalities have a very limited level of own income and few opportunities to generate such income. The new coalition agreement contains a pledge to increase such opportunities. Implementation of this pledge would significantly improve the situation of local authorities. During the consultation procedure, local interlocutors informed the rapporteurs that in their opinion, the bill for the redistribution of funds between municipalities had been prepared by the government on an urgent basis without prior analysis. They consider that no systemic settlement has been proposed.
Figure 3. Local Government Revenue in Estonia