The fall of Rome? Mayor claims cash-strapped city will shut down unless it is bailed out

The Eternal City is eternally in debt, and has to be bailed out by the government – just as it has done every year since 2008. Can a new mayor and new Italian president change entrenched attitudes?
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There’s a feeling that you take your life in your hands when riding a bike in Rome after dark. You might be clipped by a speeding taxi. But the biggest danger are the gaps in the road, some the size of small wells, which by the mayor’s own admission get bigger because the city gets around to filling them in only twice a century.

“With the money currently at our disposal, I’m able to perform road maintenance every 52 years and clean out the city’s 500,000 manholes every 24 years. This isn’t really maintenance,” Mayor Ignazio Marino said this week in his showdown with the national government, and in particular, Italy’s new premier, Matteo Renzi. At the heart of the crisis is a €20bn hole that has opened up in the city’s accounts after decades of incompetence, corruption and denial.

But Rome’s financial shortfall is accelerating. In a repeat of city-vs-state confrontations seen in the US – notably in Detroit and in 1970s New York – Mr Marino told Mr Renzi in no uncertain terms last week that national government must provide the emergency funds needed to pay for vital services and civil servants’ wages, or the city would shut down from Monday morning.

Without the stop gap injection of €500m (£406m), Mr Marino predicted chaos would ensue. “In March there won’t be money to pay 25,000 city employees, to pay for fuel for the buses, to keep the nurseries open, to collect rubbish or to organise the canonisation of the two popes, an event of a planetary scale,” he said.

Mr Renzi presumably thought that being blamed for pushing the capital city into default wouldn’t look good in his first week in government. He responded today by rushing through an emergency funding decree to pay the €500m into the city’s coffers, though he wasn’t happy with the Mayor’s attitude.

“I would invite everyone to moderate their language. Marino’s motives were understandable. His tone wasn’t,” said the irked Premier, who relinquished his own office of mayor of Florence just over a week ago.

The emergency decree will pay the salaries of municipal workers and ensure services such as public transport and rubbish collection continue, but it will by no means fix Rome’s chronic financial problems. Rome plans to pay off its debts of almost €14bn by 2048. But the city of some 2.6 million people has been bailed out by the central government every year since 2008.

Some city officials welcomed Friday’s announcement. Paolo Masini, a senior official of the centre-left administration which took power last year, said it marked the beginning of a new phase of “discipline, development and improving the efficiency of our services”.

But the emergency decree, which had already been in the pipeline during Mr Renzi’s predecessor’s time in office, brought short shrift from locals, but no one can truly blame Mr Renzi. Nor can Mayor Marino be singled out. As Turin’s Mayor Piero Fassino, head of the National Association of Councils, said yesterday: “These problems are the responsibility of those who have run Rome over the years. But they’ve been dumped on a mayor who’s only been in office for six months.”

The debts have been accumulating for half a century, but ballooned alarmingly in the past decade. According to a recent Ernst & Young report, Rome’s deficit – its yearly overspend – has surged past the €800m mark.

Drains on city finances are not hard to identify. Most prominent among these are the public services, whose generally lamentable performance comes at a very high cost. The city has about 25,000 employees of its own with another 30,000 working for the two dozen or so city public service companies. Critics accuse local politicians of seeing the army of municipal workers as a source of votes. The city transport company Atac has has accumulated debts of €1.6bn in the past decade.

Last year, there were reports of a giant scam in which millions of bus and metro tickets were forged, with the proceeds allegedly diverted to criminal gangs, political parties and even transport chiefs. Magistrates said the scam had been going on since 2000, and had effectively stolen €70m a year from the capital’s transport system.

That Rome is a peculiarly difficult city to manage is not in doubt. La Stampa newspaper has called it a “monster”. Mr Marino noted in a recent interview that Rome’s combined role as seat of government, home to the Vatican and a major tourist destination, was exceptionally demanding.

But that isn’t much compensation for those living here. “It’s pretty bad. It’s dirty. You just can’t rely on the buses,” said Federica Franco, 28, a researcher for a Rome-based branch of the United Nations. “I’m from Turin in the north and the difference is enormous. Yes Rome is beautiful, but it is quite Third World.”

Many Romans agree. Fabio Arzeni, a 26-year-old waiter, said: “My city was always chaotic. But it’s got worse in the past 10 years. The public transport is terrible. The holes in the road could kill you – and I go on a scooter. Maybe we need privatisation. We certainly need more controls. People shouldn’t be able to leave rubbish where they like. There need to be rules, and punishments for uncivil behaviour.”

Previous occupants of the mayor’s office, such as right-winger Gianni Alemanno, have been singled out for blame by some. The deficit grew rapidly during Mr Alemanno’s time in office (2008-2013), amid corruption scandals in transport and party funding.

“Five years of Alemanno and the deficit surged over €800m,” said Marco Causi, a former councillor under Mr Alemanno’s predecessor Walter Veltroni. But Mr Veltroni’s centre-left administration was hardly blameless. It aimed high, for example, trying (and failing) to promote the Rome Film Festival as a rival to those in Venice and Cannes, while not ensuring that roads were swept.

All in all, there seems to be a degree of consensus regarding the scale of Rome’s problem, and much agreement on what has caused them. But how to resolve them; and how to change hearts and minds, ingrained corruption and bad administration? These questions appear as eternal as the city itself.