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Sunday, Jan. 9, 2000

'Super Osaka' bureaucracy floated

City, prefecture said at costly cross purposes, urged to merge


Staff writer

OSAKA -- Should the municipal boundaries of Osaka Prefecture be redrawn so that the city of Osaka is a ward of the prefecture? Or should the prefecture be scrapped entirely, leaving a "Super City Osaka"?

Not too many years ago, most people here, especially those in the bureaucracies, would have dismissed either of the suggestions as unrealistic. However, with both the city and prefecture facing skyrocketing public-sector debts, a declining local economy, and the need to compete with other major regions for national and international investment, some in local business and academic circles and the media are suggesting a Tokyolike administrative body to resolve these problems.

The idea has been on the fringes for years, but resurfaced last fall when two magazines suggested that residents of Osaka Prefecture would benefit from a merger between the city and the prefecture. It was noted that the 23 wards of Tokyo are run as a prefecture, with one governor and one assembly, and urged that Osaka consider a similar system.

Supporters of a single government for all Osaka say the idea has three merits:* A single government would be more efficient. The Osaka mayor's position could be eliminated and city assembly members would become prefectural representatives, while the number of bureaucrats in both the municipal and prefectural governments could be reduced.* Money saved by combining the two governments could immediately be used to help stem the tide of government debt that both the prefecture and city face due to failing public works projects. At the same time, future public works projects could be planned more efficiently and budgeted better.* Finally, there is the public relations point, especially internationally. Osaka-based foreign businesspeople and diplomats have long noted that the division between the city and the prefecture means more red tape for potential investors and that having two Osakas to deal with may be daunting to some potential investors.

Opponents to the idea, however, also have strong arguments:* They don't buy the efficiency argument, saying that bigger government doesn't mean streamlined efficiency but bulky incompetence.

The prefectural government is larger and more bureaucratic than its municipal counterpart because it serves a larger area, while the city is in a position to offer more personalized services, especially at the ward office level.* Then there is economics. Combining the two governments, both of which face huge debts due to failing third-sector projects, would make repayment that much more difficult. Serious questions would remain about how such debts would be restructured, with many people who live in the prefecture opposed to taking on the municipality's debts, and vice versa.* This is followed by arguably the most powerful reason -- that the bureaucrats would be adamantly opposed.

"The idea of combining the prefectural and municipal governments of Osaka was suggested about 15 years ago, but was rejected. As an idea, it has its merits, but bureaucratic opposition would be impossible to overcome," said Mitsuyo Hara, a prefectural official.

Bureaucratic competition, however, is partially responsible for competition between the city and the prefecture that critics argue results in a duplication of projects and services.

For example, the prefectural-run Dawn Center, located within the city of Osaka, was established in 1995 as a center for women's issues. The center has won international praise and is proof positive that government projects need not be wasteful white elephants.

For a nominal charge, it offers meeting halls, classes and information, both practical and academic, on a wide variety of national and international women's issues.

The city, however, is running its own women's center in four separate areas. While critics welcome the idea of the centers, they wonder why the city and prefecture couldn't have cooperated to locate them in Sakai, Suita or somewhere more convenient for people who can't get to the Dawn Center.

The most obvious area of duplication, however, is in the huge third-sector, or joint public-private, projects that were built to attract international investment.

For the past five years, the foreign community of Osaka has complained that city-run projects, such as the World Trade Center and Asian Trade Center, and prefectural projects, such as Rinku Town and Izumi Cosmopolis, are competing against each other for foreign businesses, and the rivalry means neither side is effective.

"Whatever happens, though, the current structure of the Osaka local government cannot continue as is. Serious changes are required, but it's also a question of which ones are practical," Hara said.



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