Updates on Zamboanga City’s Business Permits Administration

Two months ago I observed a roundtable discussion between Zamboanga City Mayor Celso Lobregat, City Government Department Heads, representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, and the United States Ambassador to the Philippines. The Mayor was presenting to the Ambassador a summary of the activities and benefits of a USAID – sponsored capacitation project. It was about improving the way Zamboanga City administers the Business Permit, and as I listened to his talk I was struck by the similarity of conditions faced by most cities in the issuance of this Permit. 

            The innovations mentioned by the good mayor were simple, sensible, and practical. Moreover, any city in the Philippines could do the same things that the Mayor talked about. They intensified the enforcement of regulatory requirements between February to December, so that businesses would have the required clearances by the time they applied for renewal of their Mayor’s Permits by January of the next year. They changed the sequence of activities in the process of renewing a Permit, so that applicants can pay the requisite taxes and fees even before they have complied with all requirements (thus ensuring collection of revenues).

                        Zamboanga City had three other innovations that may not be relevant or applicable to other cities. The first has to do with businesses located in buildings that have violated the Land Use Plan or the Building Code. The City only recently adopted its own Land Use and Zoning Ordinance, and is now enforcing it strictly. Here, city officials faced a dilemma: should they issue Business Permits to establishments located in buildings that violate either the Building Code or the Land Use ordinance? If they would, it might be construed as condoning the violation. But if they wouldn’t, a considerable number of legitimate businesses would not be able to get Permits, and the City would not be able to collect related taxes and fees from them. Mayor Lobregat resolved the problem by allowing owners of non-complying buildings to formally promise (in writing) to comply with the law. That way, local authorities had more teeth to enforce the Building Code and the Zoning Plan, and at the same time the Treasurer could collect Business Permit-related taxes and fees. 

            In a previous article I talked about how Zamboanga City faces a considerable squatter problem. The City used to deny applications for Mayor’s Permits filed by business owners operating on squatted land. The Mayor decided to change this policy by allowing them sign a waiver. The waiver says three important things: a) that the applicant recognizes that he/she does not own the land; b) that he/she promises to vacate the property when required; and c) the Permit does not give him/her any tenurial rights to the land. 

            The latest innovation introduced by the Zamboanga City officials and employees is the use of Geographic Information System (G I S)       to map the location of business establishments. The City’s Management Information System (MIS) Department provides the operations and the equipment, while the Planning and assessor’s offices provided background data, such as the street map and barangay boundaries. The City Treasurer’s staff provides data on the location of commercial buildings and business establishments found in those buildings. The information system is used to provide maps and lists of business establishments to all enforcement agencies (e.g., City Health Department, Bureau of Fire Protection) so that they can conduct their routine inspections efficiently.


Getting There

We started this crazy project way back during Mayor Alvin Garcia’s time.  After getting disillusioned with a foreign-funded project managed out of Manila, I had come back to work part-time with the City Government.  I decided to focus on what is probably the most challenging area of local revenue generation: real property tax administration. 

Because a few years earlier I had helped to start the GIS Center, I gravitated towards the mission of developing a parcel fabric.  No, it’s not a kind of cloth.  “Parcel fabric” is a term given to a seamless digital map of all the lot parcels in the city.  It was a strategic choice, because such a map would not only allow us to manage the computation and collection of taxes for land properties, it would also serve as the foundation for other kinds of maps – a map of buildings (which are also taxed), a map of business within buildings (also taxable), a map of public facilities, maps of many other features and conditions.

Right from the get-go we knew this was going to be a long-term project.  First, we had to digitize (i.e., convert into a digital file) all our lot parcel maps.  This was done by putting the paper map on top of a “digitizing tablet”, which is a fancy name for a table that has electronic sensors on its surface.  The lines on the paper map are traced through the cross-hairs of a device called the “puck”; the sensors detect the location of the puck and signal the computer where to put the lines.  That way, line by line, intersection by intersection, we created electronic versions of our paper maps.  (Nowadays the preferred way of doing this is to scan the entire map, then use “raster-to-vector” software to convert the scanned image into lines and polygons.  Alternatively, the GIS operator can trace the scanned image onscreen to create the lines and polygons.  A fourth approach would have been to use coordinate geometry by entering bearing-and-distance data from Land Titles, and using the GIS software to create polygons.  Because we did not have copies of the titles for most of the land, this option was not available to us.  Also, the land survey for the mountain area of Cebu City has not been approved by the Land Management Bureau of the DENR, so there were no official government survey data for properties in that area).

Now the parcel files were organized in sections.  In the urban area of the city, roads defined the section boundaries; in rural areas, very few distinguishable features can be used to reference the section boundaries.  In the urban area, boundaries may follow the path of a river, bend at a distinctive rock formation or tree, or simply cut across open land.  We also knew that the section maps are not of the same scale, so GIS operators had to adjust the size of the digital versions of these section maps so that they would fit each other.  With the city streets as reference, this was comparatively easy to do for urban parcel maps.  It was much harder to do this with the rural lot parcel maps, and we had to “rubbersheet” the parcel files into the approximate locations only.

What we did not anticipate were problems like missing maps (to this day, Leizl Gonzaga and Cesar Concon are still looking for ways to get more maps from the Land Registration Authority), and the inability of our Tax Mapping Division to consistently reflect the subdivision and consolidation of properties in our paper maps.  The latter is no simple thing: we’re talking here about almost twenty (20) years of accumulation of subdivisions and consolidations that should have been done on parcel maps, but were not.  How could this have happened? Part of the reason is simply that when you work with paper maps of fixed size, subdivision a parcel the size of a postage stamp into ten or more parts is not easy.  With our GIS today, you can simply zoom in all you want and make as many subdivisions as required; back when they had to work with pen and paper, the same operation would have meant opening new section maps. 

Through all of these, Mary Jane Parker[1] Caballero led her GIS team into the heart of the Assessor’s Office.  One thing about MJ is her PR – she gets along better with people better than I do (ok, ok, most people get along better with others than I do, but she really knows how to get people to cooperate without having to twist their arms).  She also managed to wrap her head around an approach to getting the work done, and recruited a tenacious supervisor (Betty Boquecosa) who made sure everybody did their assigned work.

The parcel fabric was completed (sort of) during Mayor Garcia’s first term.  While all the parcel files had been digitized, and placed in their approximate location, the late Demboy Peralta had to transform many of those files to put them in the right size, shape, and orientation.  At that point, we were ready for the next challenge: tying up each parcel to its corresponding Tax Declaration record. 

You would expect each parcel to have one TD, and vice versa.  The results of our little experiment showed otherwise.  We found about 25,000 parcels apparently without TD; 22,000 parcels apparently with more than one TD; and 18,000 TDs apparently without corresponding parcels.  I use the word “apparently” because we were not certain about it – and the ensuing research showed that in many cases the detected “exceptions” were due to typographical error.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Seeing these figures, Mayor Garcia ordered the City Assessor and his staff to clean up their records.  By the end of his second term, they had achieved some progress.  But under Mayor Osmeña’s leadership their pace quickened.  About six months ago the District Tax Mappers even included clean-up targets in their Performance Targets.

It so happened that the MMTs under Leizl’s leadership decided to learn how to do Tax Mapping.  This involves three major phases: Pre-field, Field, and Post-field.  In the Pre-field Phase, records of land real properties are matched against section maps, to see whether there are parcels still without TD, or vice versa.  The result of Pre-Field would guide Field operations.  If for example we found parcels without TD during Pre-Field, the first thing we would do during Field operations is look for that parcel and appraise its value.

So we printed a list of the TDs for Sections 2 and 3 of Bgy Sto Niño.  Then we manually checked off the TDs against the parcel maps.  Wonder of wonders, they tied up.  For every TD, there is one parcel.  For every parcel, there is one TD. 

Wow, I thought, I would not have seen this kind of perfect match a few years ago.  It looks like we’re getting somewhere with Mary Jane’s and her team’s and the DTMs’ efforts.  Their work over the last few years is showing some real results in the quality of our real property records’ consistency and reliability.

So much remains to be done.  Nigel Zanoria wants to improve the accuracy of the placement of rural area section maps, so next month Harold Alcontin and the GPS team will go to the mountain barangays to get the coordinates of reference points like barangay boundary markers.  We noted that if you color-coded the parcels according to Base Unit Value assignment, we can find parcels along the same side of the street in different colors  – meaning they have different BUV values, which should not be the case if our General Revision Ordinance is strictly followed.  And the building footprints from our orthophoto do not line up with the parcel boundaries. 

But these things are for the coming days and weeks and months (hopefully, not years).  We’re not at the end of our journey yet, we’re just stopping over at Rivendell. For now, I am taking my sweet time reminiscing about the terrible problems we faced, the lifelong lessons we learned and the significant small victories we won.   For now it’s enough to know that, though a complete parcel fabric is still some way off, we’re getting there.

[1] It happens that her husband is also named Peter

Picking the Best, Consistently


You’ve been waiting for your salary, and when it finally comes out you sum up all the things you need to pay for.  Then you realize that you don’t have enough money for everything on your list.  So which expense do you prioritize? Now we have different ways of figuring this out – after all, we have different values – but in the end we all make what we each would consider to be the best choice.


Then an unexpected windfall arrives. Suddenly awash with cash, many of us are no longer as picky with the way we spend our surplus funds. We spend this time for trivial, low priority stuff.


The same thing happens with time. When we have little time to do something, we pick the most important tasks. But when we have more than enough time in our hands, we do the a lot of stuff that have little value.


They say that a crisis brings out the best in people. Why do we have to wait for a crisis to give our best? Why can’t we behave and perform in the best way possible all the time? In our choices with time, money, and everything else, why can’t we always, consistently, choose the best?


I suspect part of the reason is because we run out of the will power to make the best choice. Will power seems to be affected by many factors. Physical energy and emotional condition are two factors. Clarity of vision is another; if we have a clear idea of what we want to achieve, it’s easier to make the best choice in any situation. Spirituality is a huge, perhaps the ultimate factor – the more connected you are to your God, the better your discernment of the best thing to do.


But to me the most obvious reason why we do not always pick the best choice is that it often involves doing things that are hard and painful. The best choice often requires us to sacrifice comforts and pleasures that we not easy to give up. That’s why when circumstances force us, we choose to do what’s right. But when we do not have to do it that way, we choose to do what is easy.


There are three things that we need to work on, if we want to make the best choice consistently, all the time. First is discernment, the capability to determine and know the best choice. Second is passion, the desire to do what is right and best. Third is endurance, the strength to persevere in implementing the best choice.

The Vision Compass

You’ll never know when things will suddenly go bad on you.  There you are, whistling through your priorities, when some disaster strikes without warning.  The new contract that everybody is looking forward to is suddenly cancelled, or a close friend dies, or a girlfriend breaks up with you, or your network gets crippled and you can’t email a demanding boss who only communicates through his Yahoo account. You know, those things that not only cause serious operational problems, but also a lot of emotional stress and tremendous mental distress. When you get sideswiped like this, it can be tough to get your groove back.

Some folks are more resilient than others. They bounce back right away, shrugging off a major disaster like it was just a minor annoyance.  They’re stoic.  Nothing seems to faze them at all. Some of these guys are just putting on a brave face, while others are genuinely fine.  They have accepted what has happened, including their own feelings (they are secure enough to admit that they are scared), and are starting to make plans to deal with the situation.

One thing that I have noticed about these survivor types is that they have something to look forward to, beyond the immediate disaster. They have a clear vision of certain conditions that they want to achieve in the future. Often, their mental picture of these conditions is so richly detailed that when they talk about it you’d think they’ve been to the future and seen it with their own eyes. And their zeal for that vision is so palpable, so passionate, that those who listen to them can’t help but be inspired.

The strength and clarity of these visions is one of the factors that allow them to walk through fire and move forward. Like a compass that constantly weeks North, visions orient and remind us about where we want to be, and guide us out of the disaster zone. 

So while you’re pushing ahead with your plans, every now and then remind yourself of your vision. Hold the picture in your mind, add more specifics to make it clearer. Just in case something jumps up and bites you somewhere, you’ll have something to help you through.

Production versus Production Capability

A colleague recently discussed a dilemma about her upcoming licensure exam.  She wants to do her best to prepare for the tests, but also needs to continue earning.  Should she go on leave, or resign?  Although I advised a compromise of sorts, I told her that bottom line is that the exams come first because her job only produces current income, while the license will give her a chance to earn much more in the future.

In our personal experiences and in our organizations, we often have to choose between those activities that produce something (like income, products, or services), and activities that enhance our capability to produce.  Should we work, or study?  Should we spend all our time and effort on delivering services, or in finding ways to improve the way we deliver services?  Should we spend our money buying a better batching plant?

If we concentrate on production, we see the benefits almost immediately: more output, needs are addressed, customer satisfaction increases.  Until the next peak season for demand, when we have to produce again.  Given the apparently constant increase in demand, we find ourselves having to work harder to produce more and more.  You might be able to feed yourself, but there’s a danger that in the future you’ll make just barely enough to keep on working – isang kahig, isang tuka – or that you’ll eternally be damned to responding to one crisis after another.

On the other hand, concentrating on improving production capability bears the promise that at some time in the future, we will be reaping the benefits of our efforts when we start earning more, or when we become more productive.  But until that happens, it is only a promise and an expectation.  In the meantime, you may not earn or produce enough, your stomach and your customers grumble.  You might have a bright future ahead of you, but you might not survive to see it.

Somewhere between these two extremes there must be some kind of reasonable middle ground.  In line with the principle of “First Things First”, the best thing to do is to spend time on important production capability concerns first.  Then fire away on urgent production stuff.  How do you manage to produce enough not to die out before your PC projects pay off?  Sacrifice the unimportant (you know what these are), invest what you have in things that are truly important – like getting a professional license.

Contributing to Common Goals


At the beginning of the year, Department Heads of the Provincial Government of Bulacan come together to report their accomplishments.  While this also happens in other local governments, what makes the Bulacan experience stand out is that they do not simply talk about what each Department has done the previous year; instead, they talk about how each Department contributed to certain common goals.

This is how it works.  During the annual planning process, the entire Provincial Government sets strategic objectives.  Each and every Department is asked to commit what they can contribute to these objectives, and a Department can make a commitment to more than one objective. 

One such objective could be “increased local revenues”.  The Provincial Assessment and Treasury Office (yes, they have combined their Assessor’s Office and Treasurer’s Office) can say they will contribute by targeting an increase of so much percent in real property taxes.  The Provincial IT Office could also say that they will develop an online tax payment facility.  Other offices will commit whatever they can contribute to achieving the objective.  All offices that will work together for a certain objective will be grouped into a cluster.  For the rest of the year, they will make and implement plans to reach their common objective.  At the beginning of the next year, an assessment is conducted to see how much the individual offices have contributed to realizing this objective. 

This program is called “Bayanihan” because it is based on the premise that different Departments have to work together to achieve common goals.  It is premised on the existence of a clear and practical vision of what the local government leadership wants to accomplish at the end of a planning period (long-term visions for three years, immediate visions for one year).  From these practical visions, specific objectives are established.  Then the contribution-commitment process can begin.

The beauty of this approach is that it creates synergy in the projects and services of the different Departments, as these are directed towards common goals.  Because these efforts converge on the same objective, they become more effective, as enough resources, time, and attention are focused on the same subject.  Departments do not run around like headless chicken doing their own thing. 

The experiential benefit is that it reinforces the need to work together.  If replicated in other local governments, this has the effect of making Department Heads who may not like each to still work for the same objective, as each one is accountable for his/her contribution.  Sooner or later they learn to cooperate, as they realize that no Department is an island.

Business Permits and the Marginalized

It’s Business Permits renewal time again, that wonderful time of the year when tempers flare, blood pressures soar, and panicky people panic; when the system that was supposed to have been set up in the last few days of the last year are hurriedly installed in a desperate effort to start entertaining applicants on the first day of work this year.

In the next twenty days we will hear all sorts of complaints: the staff don’t arrive early enough, the computer system fails every now and then, somebody is earning money on the side, the people who should be in charge are nowhere to be found, etc, etc.  We’ve heard it all before, and we’re likely to hear it again in the future.


But what we won’t hear at all are complaints from the marginalized businessmen – the small-time entrepreneurs who are too small to get Business Permits, who don’t bother to apply for one because the process is too complicated for them.


We call it the underground economy.  They are merchants without receipts, whose goods managed to slip through customs from who knows where, or are locally produced in household kitchens and shops.  They sell anything from DVDs to cheap electronics to garments and sexy underwear.  You find them in street corners, while some of the more audacious have put up shop just like “legitimate” businesses.  Some of them weave through stopped vehicles before a red light, hawking their ware to drivers and passengers alike.


These entrepreneurs make up a huge portion of the local economy.  How much do the DVD/VCD stores in the malls make, compared to what those guys in the sidewalks of Colon and Fuente Osmena earn?  And they are certainly industrious – just watch anybody tending a barbecue stall, and see how much patience and endurance is required to stand before live coal and delicious food – and how much discipline it takes to refrain from eating your own product.


Yet they find it hard to be part of the formal economy.  De Sotto says that part of the reason for this is the difficulty in acquiring titles or deeds to whatever assets they might have.  Former President Ernesto Zedillo says that another reason is the difficulty in getting business permits.  Often, the requirements and processes involved in getting business permits, while surmountable by small and medium enterprises, are too much for the sidewalk entrepreneur.  Just try asking a sidewalk vendor for a statement of income certified by a CPA. 


We need to start looking at a business permit for the marginalized entrepreneurs.  Ambulant Vendors’ permits are a start, but we need to cast a wider net and simplify requirements for non-ambulant businessmen who may be individually small, but who collectively form a large part of our economy.