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New mayor signs off on free school meal expansion

Park expected to halt civil engineering projects


Signing off on a plan to finance free lunches for all elementary school students starting next month was the first thing new Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon did as he began his job Thursday.

With his signing, the free school meal program, currently offered to first through fourth graders, will be extended to fifth and sixth graders, two months after ex-mayor Oh Se-hoon resigned over his failure to thwart the free meal expansion plan pushed by the opposition-heavy city council. A referendum proposed by Oh on whether to expand free school lunches failed to stand due to low voter turnout.

Seoul City government will provide 18.5 billion won to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education to pay for lunch for some 197,000 fifth and sixth graders in the remaining two months of this year. The city government had deferred the budget execution of 69.5 billion won for the school meals, citing a need to wait for a Supreme Court ruling on a lawsuit Oh had filed against three ordinances approved by the city council.

The new mayor also plans to offer free school meals to all middle school students by 2014.

Park told city councilors over a luncheon that he will withdraw the lawsuit his predecessor filed.

“Many of my campaign pledges are about welfare. I especially have great interest in welfare for the disabled and the aged,” he said in a meeting with senior city officials.

He also will seek to carry out one of his pledges to halt ongoing civil engineering projects to reduce state deficits.

Park has also pledged throughout his campaign to cut the metropolitan government’s budget deficit by 10 percent each year, or by about 7 trillion won until his term ends in 2014.

He plans to do this by revising or stopping some major civil engineering projects started by his predecessor Oh such as the renovation work on Yanghwa Bridge to allow larger ships to pass under.

The recently resumed construction work on the bridge in western Seoul, which has long been a point of conflict between the city government and the opposition-heavy city council, was part of a broader plan to build a waterway linking downtown Seoul to the West Sea.

A budget of some 32 billion won ($28.7 million) has already been poured into the renovation work, more than 80 percent of which has been completed.

“About an additional 10 billion won has to be spent (under the city’s plan),” Park said during the campaign.

“I don’t think 10 billion won is a small amount.”

Park is also expected to scrap or review from square one the 670 billion won “Hangang Art Island” project and construction of canals along the tributaries of the Han River under a greater “Han River Renaissance” blueprint.

The plan to build cultural infrastructures including an opera house and a symphony hall on Nodeul Island dates back to 2005 when Seoul City bought the plot on the island for that purpose under then-mayor Lee Myung-bak.

The budget for the art island project has not been appropriated yet, but Park said he will scrap the project, noting that about 1 trillion won will be spent including the improvement of transportation networks around it.

Park plans to organize a committee of citizens to draw up detailed plans to halt the art island venture.

Park, however, is expected to keep the ongoing works to restore the ecosystem, refurbish road systems and expand bicycle tracks along the Han River and its tributaries.

Despite his pledge to reduce budget deficit, Park has vowed to complete the construction of 80,000 public rental homes, which would cost 1.13 trillion won, within his term which expires in June 2014.

By Kim So-hyun (sophie@heraldcorp.com)
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