Archive for Venetian Problems
You want to help Venice with her budget problems? Buy a palace. Or 13, if you’re in a good mood — that’s how many the city has recently mentioned considering putting on sale.
But this story isn’t about palaces, it’s about money, need for, lack of.
The thing is this: It’s easy to imagine that All Those Tourists who come through Venice are strewing cash like crazed monarchs. “What’s the problem? Venice lives on tourism!” Actually, it doesn’t. Venice lives mostly on an allowance from the national government which has been cut so far back that there aren’t enough coins left in the municipal pocket to make even one tiny jingle. Venice can’t be self-supporting because there are too few tax-paying residents (more about that in another post) to pay for the needs of a really big, super-old World Heritage Site trampled by millions of people a year.
I feel like I’ve been reading about Venice’s financial problems all my life, but the stories come out in bits and pieces and aren’t very well connected, and the numbers are always up in millions and billions, so I’ve never had a clear notion of what was involved in paying for keeping Venice running. Now I have some information even I can understand, so here goes. To save space converting numbers, just bear in mind that one euro = 1.12 dollars at the moment.
One reason it’s hard to understand how Venice can be so broke are the thrilling reports of money made from big events such as New Year’s Eve, the Biennale, and Carnival. The numbers are dazzling to a one-celled organism like me. A few months ago a story in the Gazzettino trumpeted the fact (I guess it’s a fact) that 40 million euros were expected to come pouring through the big chute labeled “Carnival.” Forty million euros!! My first reaction is “Semo in poenta!” which is Venetian for “We’re in polenta!” which is Venetian for “We’ve struck paydirt!” (Or “We can make next month’s rent!” or “We can buy the kid a new pair of shoes!” or “We can feed your mom this week!”).
But pausing for a moment to consider how this money is distributed — hint: it doesn’t drop directly into the city’s coffers — the reality is that (A) that much money is expected to be spent here (yes!!) by tourists paying for things like (B) hotel rooms (C) food (D) gondola rides (E) taxi rides (F) fabulous ticket-only costume parties and masked balls in palaces, tickets to which can reach 2,500 euros, and (E) extras. “Extras” is usually where my own budget strikes the reef.
The benefit to the city from all this spendage is supposed to arrive via taxes. You know, the taxes nobody pays. Sorry — almost nobody. More about taxes in another post.
So forget big events and their resplendent ephemeral income. Let’s look for a moment at the city’s everyday budget.
Income: The Special Law for Venice. Before I continue, it’s worth knowing that billions of euros granted to Venice over the past decade or so for the benefit of the city and lagoon have been pretty much all diverted to the MOSE project. This diversion was accomplished by the MOSE people, with a big assist from the city fathers and anybody else who could get close enough to stick out their hand. I draw your attention to the phrase in the Law which mentions that the money is also granted to Venice “to ensure its socio-economic viability.”
The Gazzettino reported the most recent allotment of funds via the Special Law: Venice will get only half of the money that was hoped for. (“We have no money” is not exclusively a Venetian song.) The city will receive a total of 65 million euros over seven years to be doled out thusly: 5 million in 2016 and 10 million per year from 2017 to 2022. Looked at that way, it doesn’t sound like much at all, and of course the city fathers agreed; some politicians had pressed for 50 million per year for three years, while another political group had suggested 13 million per year for an unspecified number of years. (They were probably estimating “forever.”)
To put those numbers into some kind of context, until a few years ago (by which the Gazzettino probably means 2008), the city spent 150 million euros a year. Now it’s a struggle to the death to find the money for paying the policemen.
Good news: The city has pulled itself up nearer to the edge of the deep hole into which it had fallen, thanks to the drastic cuts made in the budget by Commissario Vittorio Zappalorto (2014-2015). When I say “drastic,” I mean along the lines of “We had to destroy the budget in order to save it.” So at the end of 2015, after slashing and burning by him as well as the new mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, the deficit has been halved. The 64 million debt is now 30 million euros. This is huge news, though of course 30 million isn’t a particularly small number.
The Special Law allotment includes money for art works. The Ministry of Culture is allowing 6 million euros to Venice (out of 13 million to the Veneto) for 241 projects defined as being at the national level, among which is legal tender for the following projects:
- Finish the restoration of the great stained-glass window by Vivarini at SS. Giovanni e Paolo: 600,000 euro.
- Complete the restoration of the church of the Gesuiti: 1,000,000 euros.
- Restore the squero of the Bucintoro at the Arsenal: 400,000 euros.
- For the recovery of the patrimony of furniture, fabrics, paintings, and other objects including the fittings of a gondola which are in the storerooms of the Superintendent of Beni Culturali, for the collection of the Palazzo Reale (royal palace): 300,000 euros. (If you’re wondering where is the royal palace, it is a series of rooms in the “Ala Napoleonica,” built by Napoleon and now housing the Correr Museum; these rooms were occupied by him, of course, and then by the Hapsburg monarchs whenever they were in town during the Austrian occupation).
- Updating the fire-extinguishing system in the Marciana library: 800,000 euros.
- Surveying and conserving the 16th-century wooden ceiling of the vestibule of the Marciana library: 620,000 euros.
- Restoration of State Archives, maintenance work, and bringing the lightning rods up to code: 841,000 euros.
- Accademia Galleries: 1,500,000 euros for uses not specified by the Gazzettino.
- Surveys, studies and security interventions on the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio: 390,000 euros.
- Second phase of the realization and installations of the National Museum of Marine Archaeology in Caorle: 1,900,000 euros. (Good going, Caorle city fathers!)
This is all very gratifying, and I’m not being sarcastic.
But now we come to the prickly subject of Outgo. Moving our eyes from art treasures to the World Outside, things look less lovely.
The Special Law has provided 28 million euros, which is earmarked thusly: 5 million for maintenance of parks and green spaces; and 10 million for “cultural interventions” (theatre, cinema, programs at the Bevilacqua La Masa foundation and the Querini Stampalia. I thought those were private?); and 13 million for ‘touristic interventions,” which despite the label are subdivided to pay the municipal police (7,500,000) on holidays and nights; 1,100,000 for the Venetian-rowing world; 1,600,000 for the “organization of events,” especially the promotion thereof. This is the division of the spoils till 2018. We’ll definitely be turning our shirt collars and drinking tap water to get through three years on that allowance.
A very interesting and detailed article in a magazine called “Il Metropolitano” outlined what it costs to keep Venice running (translated by me). The subtitle gives a hint of things to come: “To guarantee the services in the Historic Center costs 41 million more per year than any city in the rest of Italy. And Rome is sending less and less money.” It’s true that Venice is the most expensive city in Italy, but now I see that it’s expensive not only for tourists and residents, but for itself.
An independent research organization, the Centro Studi Sintesi, recently did a detailed rundown of the city budget. You don’t need to be some financial wizard to grasp that the 5 million euros allotted for 2016 falls slightly short of the estimated 120 million annually that Venice needs. There’s more — due to drastic national cuts imposed in order to get the Italian economy in line with European norms, Venice did not receive the 1,250,000,000 (you read that right) it was expecting over the past few years, and only got 77 per cent of what was expected between 2010 and 2015, which makes Venice the city most-penalized by national economic restrictions in the country.
Let’s go to the videotape:
Garbage collection and street cleaning: 30,000,000 per year. It’s commonly thought – I used to think it too — that the amazing quantity of tourist trash increases the spazzino‘s workload, but statistically this turns out not to be true. The study says that the cost is high because Venice is the only city in the world in which, six days a week, the trash is collected entirely by hand. The small streets and winding canals are implacable on that score. The average annual cost of garbage collection in Mestre, on the mainland, is 156 per family or entity such as a shop or restaurant. In Venice, it’s 727 euros per family or entity.
Cemetery: 2,000,000 per year. Stories keep appearing in the paper about how the cemetery on the island of San Michele is falling to pieces. And it is. But there are also 16 other cemeteries in the Comune of Venice and, the study specifies, eight in the Historic Center. There’s San Michele, but there are also two cemeteries on the Lido one each on Burano (actually Mazzorbo), Malamocco, Pellestrina, San Pietro in Volta, and Sant’ Erasmo. There are eight more in the Comune of Venice on the mainland.
Sewage treatment: 600,000 euros. No, it doesn’t all go into the canals anymore. For the past 20 years there has been a steady improvement in this necessary part of city management. Septic tanks have been required to be installed in public buildings — hotels, restaurants, offices, museums, etc. But again, the tiny, complicated spaces of which Venice is so fascinatingly constructed means that there isn’t one in the Historic Center. You may have noticed that “honey boats” come and pump out the septic tanks, but the city doesn’t pay for that. The sewage is taken to one of the 30-some treatment centers strewn around the Comune, which includes some of the mainland. There is one center on the Lido and one in Pellestrina, to which the houses there are connected.
Public parks (“green spaces”): 600,000 euros. Although not considered technically an essential public service, there is a surprising number of big trees around, in biggish and smallish parks alike. And also shrubs and flowers, which are so desperately wonderful in the summer heat. But trees and bushes need to be trimmed, pruned, and lopped. Unhappily, this category of expense does not include trimming the bridges, which continue to sprout destructive plants and weeds because, in the organizational scheme, shrubbery on bridges is nobody’s responsibility. It’s not garbage, it’s not a green space, it’s not anything but just stuff.
Tide Forecast: 1,200,000 euros. Acqua alta is far from free. First, there is the cost of putting out and removing the high-water walkways. That is to say, hauling them all from the warehouse in September and stacking them at the crucial points; unstacking and positioning them when high tide is coming ashore, stacking them up again (to save space on the street) when the tide goes out, and on and on until April, when they are definitively hauled away to the warehouse. But this is paid for by the garbage-collection budget, because it’s the spazzini who do this work. Thereby leaving uncollected bags of garbage all over the city on high-water days.
But the real cost is the maintenance of the system of collecting data and forecasting the tide, which requires many instruments (maintenance of) and manpower to analyze and broadcast the data. Somebody has to hit the button to sound the warning sirens, after all. I can tell you that this department needs lots more money than it gets. And then, of course, the citizens screech when the prediction is not fulfilled. You can understand people yelling when the tide turns out to be higher than forecast, but people yell when it turns out to be lower, too. If I had to work at the Tide Center, I’d be on drugs.
Street Lighting: 1,000,000 euros. When I came here in 1994, there was still a good number of streets which were dark and romantic. Or dark and ominous, as you prefer. On our fondamenta (in another neighborhood), the only light at sundown was from the window of the deli across the canal. I used to call it “the lighthouse of the neighborhood” – it was the only gleam in the gloom of a dismal, foggy night. Then the city started to install more streetlamps and now there are some areas that are as bright as stadiums. Here again, Venice’s fascinating interweaving of tiny streets creates unromantic problems. On the mainland, 292 lamps per square kilometer are sufficient. In Venice, you need 804. And all that juice isn’t cheap.
School lunches: 300,000 euros. No need to repeat it – Getting cargo around Venice is costly (lots of canals, bridges, streets, and most important of all, very little storage space, therefore more trips). A child eating in the cafeteria in a school in Venice pays from 76 – 84 cents more per meal than a child on the mainland.
Handicapped transport: 1,200,000 euros. The explanation of this expense isn’t clear. I can understand that making many places wheelchair-accessible is expensive, but once that’s been accomplished, the cost should diminish. There are buses on the Lido and mainland which have extending ramps to help people in wheelchairs board, but to get on a vaporetto, the person still needs to be hoisted by hand. Still, this is in the budget, so there we’ll leave it.
Ordinary maintenance: 4,100,000 euros. To the naked eye, it appears that this generally consists of putting warning tape around spots that are dangerous (broken pavement, collapsing fondamente, and so on). Canal-dredging has become a mere dream. But let’s say that some problem crops up with the wiring in City Hall – fixing it will cost 20 per cent more than on the mainland. Costs for construction are 30 per cent higher than on the mainland. The biggest challenge (expense) has to do with the street pavement. On the mainland, just throw down another layer of asphalt. Here, the streets have to be torn up and reconstructed stone by stone. Result: It costs 80 per cent more in Venice than on the mainland to fix a street.
I will tell you a revealing remark made to me many years ago by a Venetian who was showing me some of the destruction wrought by motondoso on fondamente and assorted streets and bridges. He pointed out a few massive stones bordering the fondamenta at the church of the Salute. Their relationship with the horizontal had been compromised by some trivial wound, and waves and gravity were obviously going to make it worse. I, with my quaint, Anglo-Saxon “stitch in time,” “for want of a nail” outlook on life, asked him why the city didn’t intervene to repair this now, thereby avoiding more work later. He said, “Because it doesn’t cost enough.” Translation: Only when a problem becomes big, and therefore costly, and therefore worthwhile to some company to make loads of money fixing it, is the situation addressed. This makes the same amount of sense as not clipping a hangnail because when it becomes gangrenous you can bring in teams of expensive surgeons and teratons of drugs and everybody makes some money.
There is even a saying to cover this approach: “Don’t bandage your hand until it’s hurt.” To which I always reply, “If you avoid hurting your hand, you won’t have to bandage it.” You can say it in Italian, but I haven’t found anybody who thinks it makes sense.
Let’s finish in a blaze of glory, or at least a blaze from some shorted-out circuit on the tram line. My idea is this: If you can’t pay to fix the problems you already have, at least don’t create new problems that will cost even more money. The tram holds a weird fascination for me, as it continues to reveal spectacular flaws in design and construction. There are almost daily breakdowns, delays, malfunctions of all sizes and shapes down to the fact that there isn’t an adequate system for de-fogging the windshields. It cost 208 million euros to build two lines and buy the trains, but it costs twice as much as a normal bus to operate. The electric bill is 2,500 euros ($2,820) a day. Two carriages of the 20-train fleet are permanently out of service, left in the shop to be cannibalized for parts as needed, because the company which made the parts has gone out of business.
I think that’s enough for one day.
Both phenomena can be extreme, disagreeable, and unavoidable. (Well, altitude sickness is avoidable, theoretically, if you have enough time to acclimate yourself.) I haven’t discovered a way to acclimate to tourism here, at the point it has reached, except by avoidance. Which is like solving altitude sickness by not climbing the mountain. No taking the vaporetto on the Grand Canal on Sunday afternoon, for example. No Piazza San Marco pretty much ever until winter.
But yesterday morning at the Rialto Market vaporetto stop I had a useful exchange of views with a heftily-middle-aged German lady. (Useful to me; she was untouched by the experience.)
So we’re standing on the dock, as I said. I snap a photo of some people I know from the rowing section of the Railway Employees’ Afterwork Club, as they rowed their gondola downstream. They were followed by a caorlina from another club. I didn’t raise my camera.
She speaks: “Don’t you want to take a picture of them?”
I reply: “No, I was just taking a picture of the other people because I know them.”
“Are they training for something?”
“No, they’re just out for a spin in the morning. It’s something people in the boat clubs like to do.”
“Well, I’ve never seen them and I’ve been to Venice many times.”
“Oh. That’s odd.”
“So you live here?”
“Yes I do.”
“HOW do you STAND IT with all the TOURISTS?”
I could tell — as perhaps you can too — that she wasn’t asking because she wanted to know. She wasn’t asking, actually. She was announcing her opinion on what it would be like to live here, and clearly it would be worse than five forevers in Hades. But I decided to go with it for a while, just to see where we might end up.
“Well, every place has its positive and negative aspects,” I said. (Aren’t you proud of me for being so tactful?) “If there is a perfect place on earth, please tell me where it is, and I’ll go there immediately.”
But she was not to be pried loose from the subject of all the TOURISTS. Though now that I think of it, I should have asked her which corner of paradise she comes from.
“I’ve always come to Venice in the WINTER when there is NOBODY. I went to (I can’t remember where) in the winter and there was NOBODY. It was WONDERFUL. I don’t LIKE people.” Something in her voice made me picture a scene of utter desolation in which she, rejoicing, wandered solitarily through deserted streets as the evening shadows thickened over the stiffening corpse of a large rat in the main square.
“So why did you come in April?” (The obvious question.)
“Oh, I’m on a CRUISE.” As if this made her presence on the dock at the market inevitable. Do they drive people off the ship with whips? And I suppose she had examined the itinerary, hence was not taken by surprise to find herself in VENICE. But I didn’t reach for any of these flapping loose ends.
Our vaporetto was pulling up to the dock. “I hope you enjoy your cruise,” I said. She didn’t reply but I had the impression she was already doubting that that would be likely.
As I thought back over this very unsatisfactory conversation, I realized that I had missed my chance to throw her to the mat and painfully pin her, even if she did weigh twice as much as me.
It would have been easy. All I needed to do was to say, ” If tourists annoy you, what are you doing here? Because you’re just as much a tourist as the rest of them. Maybe you’re annoying everybody else. So why don’t you get the ball rolling by going away?”
I know that Lino would have put it more succinctly; he’d have said “So go home already.” But that lacks the philosophical twist that interested me.
Who gets to decide who should be allowed to be a tourist in Venice? They’re irritating because they’re here? You’re here too.
As Stanislaw Lec observed, “No snowflake in an avalanche feels responsible.”
I’m referring to the crumbs of May, a month which becomes more intense every year with boating events, friends flying in and out, and work of various sorts, much of which needs to be done more or less simultaneously.
The word “May” normally conjures up a pretty, flowering little month set to the melodies of those warbling madrigals. My soundtrack is more like the Ride of the Valkyries. And all this is voluntary.
So yes, there has been a lapse in blogification, which I will now attempt to rectify, if only slowly. Energy is still low, and more to the point, I may be reaching my personal Plimsoll line on the overload of bizarreness that this amazing city continues to heave onto my psyche.
I haven’t had much time to read entire stories, but the headlines kept me abreast of a few extraordinary developments.
One was the announcement by (somebody) that the decision had been made by (somebody) to remove all the garbage cans from the Piazza San Marco. Not only does that notion, in itself, make no sense whatever, it gave my memory a little vibration recalling how much municipal effort has gone into trying to keep the Piazza decent, and providing more garbage cans was certainly a positive step in that direction.
The fact that these bins are virtually always crammed with trash leads me to surmise that they are useful. The amount of trash that swirls around the area at the end of a hard tourist day also implies that there might, indeed, usefully be even more.
Some phrase indicated that the Plan was to remove the bins because they’re unsightly. The unsightliness of their contents roaming free wasn’t a factor because evidently the tourists were going to be expected to take their trash with them, you know, like Himalayan mountain climbers always do.
But never fear. For those bits that were somehow to escape the backpacks and pockets of the tourists, two garbagemen would be stationed in the Piazza to titivate its venerable stones from time to time, as or if needed. Two sweepers instead of 60 bins. I think that’s the number; it might even be more.
Then the newspaper fell silent, and I see that the bins are still in place. Whether good sense or sheer sloth deserves credit for this, the tourists can continue to leave cans, bottles, little plastic ice-cream cups, and forests’-worth of random paper all over the place, when the bins are full. But at least the bins are there.
Moving on. A right cross-uppercut were dealt to my staggering brain with a controversy concerning a “work” of “art” for the Biennale perpetrated by a Swiss “artist” named Christoph Buechel representing the noble country of Iceland.
Mr. Buechel’s specialty is political provocation, ideally creating things that offend people. So he asked to borrow the church of Santa Maria della Misericordia, in Cannaregio, which had been closed since 1969, though not deconsecrated.
What he (or Iceland) requested was the use of the church for an “exhibition space.”
He proceeded to turn it into a mosque. Rugs on the floor, shoes outside, a mihrab, a mimbar, Muslims praying on Friday, everything. All this was done with the participation of the Islamic Center of Marghera, the Icelandic Art Center, the Ministry of Education (of what country I don’t know), the Ministry of Instruction and Icelandic Culture and also Ibrahim Sverrir Agnarsson, the president of the Islamic community of Iceland. Though not, as it turned out, with the participation of the diocese of Venice because it was the only entity evidently not aware that the “exhibition” was going to be of quite another sort.
Mr. Alessandro Tamborini, a professor of Religious Science, met provocation with provocation. He walked into the church/mosque/work of art on opening day with his shoes on. Then he called the police, because he said he was being ordered to remove his shoes, which demonstrated that the place was not a work of art, but a place of worship.
If it’s a work of art, then it’s not a mosque, was his reasoning, and he can’t be required to obey a religious restriction if it’s not, in fact, a religious place. He then formally asked the police to inquire about the exact nature of this installation, and whether the necessary permissions had been granted.
They hadn’t. So ten heated days were spent in which issues of religion (freedom of), art (freedom of), city ordinances of every sort (no freedom allowed there) got all mashed up together. Many people were offended on religious grounds, but the art crowd sneered at this reaction because it showed lack of comprehension of art, even though, may I note, if offending people was the primary purpose of the project, being offended demonstrated that people comprehended it all too well.
Then the government of Iceland got into the scrum, with heated objections to perceived prejudice. And everything got all tangled up in the long-running complaints of the Muslim community at being compelled to pray in a mosque in Marghera, and not in the center of Venice, to which they feel they have a right. Drawing attention to this knotty problem, it turns out, was the motive of Mr. Buechel’s project.
But bureaucracy to the rescue! The fact that the paperwork wasn’t in order settled this very disagreeable situation in an extremely simple way. No permits? No mosque. The place is closed.
I’m ready for May to be over now.
It’s been a while since I grappled with any serious aspect of Venice today. (History is so much more amusing.) But I feel a strange sense of obligation to update the situation for people who are interested, and who may have the impression from assorted news reports that the city’s biggest problems are tourists or big cruise ships or acqua alta.
Part of my silence is because Venice is in an exceptionally confusing, depressing, and frustrating situation and I am becoming allergic to confusion and frustration. And by reading the daily bulletins, it can be difficult to grasp the big picture. So I’m here to provide it for you.
In my opinion, Venice is living (enduring, suffering) one of those critical moments which occur in every life, whether personal or municipal or national or whatever. I have no doubt that people are already writing books about it, and will continue to do so till the next critical moment strikes, and may it be far, far in the future.
This little update seems appropriate just now because yesterday there was a “primary election” to decide who will be the mayoral candidate from the political party known as PD, or Partito Democratico (Communists). Three men were vying for this nomination from their party, and this is already strange because normally the officers/directors/stringpullers of the party decide who their candidate is going to be. It’s rare for there to be such conflict within a party that the public has to intervene to decide who to run.
The election is scheduled for May 31, and many cities are going to the polls that day. Here in Venice, some politicians have already commented that the state of the city is so catastrophic that it might be better not to waste money on elections, but to just stick with the emergency governor, commissario Vittorio Zappalorto (or someone like him, appointed by the prime minister). I realize that this approach probably shouldn’t be a long-term plan, but if the electorate here were to take seriously the suggestion by one candidate that nobody from the previous city government should be permitted to run, that would leave slim pickings indeed.
My own feeling is that anyone who would want to be mayor of Venice would be someone who would want to scale Everest, walking backwards, and naked. There can’t be much difference between the two adventures — painful for him, and close to futile. Sorry, I meant fatal.
Before I relate any specifics, I share this observation by Professor Guido Vittorio Zucconi which I found on the homepage of the Ateneo Veneto, one of the city’s major cultural institutions which offers lectures and other presentations on a variety of Venetian themes.
He said that the programming of events will undergo some innovations (I translate): “To give more weight to topics tied to the ‘city that is being transformed,’ rather than those of the ‘death of Venice’: the city is not dying, but it is changing radically, showing itself too fragile for the tasks and for the impact which it must sustain every day.”
I’m clear on the fragility and the impact, but it’s the economy that has become the new instrument of daily torture. Basically, Venice doesn’t have an economy anymore.
First, the global economic crisis that began in 2008 dismembered the Italian economy. In an effort to get the country back on a steadier fiscal footing, the parliament — urged on by the heat-seeking missile which is the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi — passed a “Pact of Stability,” intended to establish budgetary limits all over the country and get everybody back on the black side of the ledger. If not? Budget cuts and penalties, and penalties and cuts, all outlined in the Pact.
Second, Venice, which for years has lived on the fat of government money via the “Special Law” for Venice, suddenly found itself not only required to prepare a budget according to the new limits, but one that would be based on real income, and not on subsidies. (Another “subsidy” of sorts, the income from taxes from the Casino, went into a death spiral about the same time.)
The city government tried all sorts of things: selling the Casino (failed), selling palaces (mostly failed), and a few mastodontic projects which instead of creating income, created only debt and grief. And money from the Special Law which had been intended for many uses had been funneled into the pockets and personal bank accounts of the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, otherwise known as “MOSE,” leaving everybody else with that “It’s only the sixth of the month and I’ve already spent my entire paycheck” feeling.
In 2005 (before the crisis) the national government passed a special decree called the “Mille Proroghe,” and repeated it each year till 2014 (it skipped 2012). A “thousand deferments” is a rough translation, and was meant to resolve or — better yet — offer extensions to facilitate the resolution of certain urgent financial problems.
But by 2008 Italy was leaping on ice floes across the raging financial river, like Eliza fleeing to Canada, except that unlike Eliza, it fell in. And cities that couldn’t make their budgets balance were on their own, even big cities such as Torino and even Rome.
On June 4, 2014 the city government imploded, and on July 2, 2014, Venice was placed under the administration of a temporary governor, Vittorio Zappalorto, whose assignment was to do whatever it took to force the budget even somewhat close to reality. In one of his first interviews, he said “I’m worried, but I’ll straighten out the accounts.”
That was then. After months of pitiless toil, cuts and slashes everywhere, Zappalorto finally concluded that there was nothing more that could be done to save the ship; he was even quoted as saying that if Rome didn’t step in with funds, all the sacrifices people had been forced to make would have been useless.
But Rome wasn’t feeling Venice’s pain; in fact, there were enough other cities in the same desperate straits that it seemed impossible, if not absurd, to favor one town ahead of the others. Why Venice and not Aquila? (Not a completely rhetorical question.)
Desperate meetings finally produced a way to save Venice from default. At 4:03 AM on February 16, 2015, the “Salva Venezia” (save Venice) amendment was inserted into the Mille Proroghe bill 2015 to be voted on.
This was only slightly good news, because there appeared to be a great reluctance on the part of the Prime Minister to give any special consideration to Venice, and hundreds of parliamentarians from all over Italy weren’t necessarily clear on the reasons why Venice deserves more help than their own region or city.
Of course, cutting spending (good) also means cutting jobs (very bad), and social services, and other non-frivolous aspects of city management. An example of what “cuts” mean: Only one and a half million euros of what ought to be nine million euros were allocated in the budget for 2015 for the 3,000 city employees.
Last year it was the then-mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, who went to Rome pleading for mercy. But now it was Zappalorto, the very man sent specifically by the Prime Minister to shape up the city, who had to step forward to ask for clemency.
On February 22, virtually at the last minute, the “Save Venice” amendment was passed, on the condition that the city’s budget be subject to monthly reviews for the next year. It’s sort of the equivalent of being grounded for the next twelve months.
The problem is how to fill in a hole in the budget that amounts to 56 million euros. I won’t start listing categories and amounts of cuts, or the various exceptions, but it’s worth noting that the city government isn’t going to have money to buy anything for its own daily operation except “paper, office supplies, and toner.” Not made up.
Before leaving this excruciating topic — and before anyone feels too tempted to weep — I have to say that although the city is broke, it has to a certain extent brought this on itself. Essentially, the city maxed-out its credit cards several years ago, and many things it has spent money on have not proved to be useful, and some are sitting half-finished, or not even started, growing weeds.
Somewhere there is a comprehensive list, but I’ll just give a few examples of the money that has been thrown out the windows with wild abandon on the Lido, summarized by the Gazzettino on March 6 under the headline “Projects and public works A flop of 100 million” (euros, rounded down). You may not care about the Lido, nor do I, but the following will demonstrate some part of the mentality which has driven the Good Ship Venice onto the pecuniary reef.
About ten years ago, more or less, a number of huge “improvement” projects were confected which would “re-launch” the island, which had lost its luster and also most of its tourist income.
The star project would be the new Palacinema for the Venice Film Festival, which was designed as a sort of multiplex with numerous theaters; another would be a vast yacht marina at San Nicolo’, a space which would be as big as the Giudecca; and another was the conversion of various buildings which comprise the once quite marvelous (and useful) Ospedale al Mare, or Hospital at the Sea, to private uses such as apartments.
The new Palacinema was approved in 2004; time was spent in the search for additional funding, work began around 2008 with the ripping out of a shady pine grove near the old building, and some excavating began. And then almost immediately stopped, because in 2009 the diggers began to pull up loads of asbestos trash, thrown away by God knows who over the years and then covered up by other occult hands. Nobody thought of taking soil samples before bringing in the backhoes.
And there the Palacinema sits — or rather, the hole sits — frozen in time, and 38,613,000 euros have been spent on a site which remains devastated and on which not one brick has yet been laid. Some wag has put up a street sign with the fictitious but too-true name, “Piazza Quaranta Milioni” (Forty Million Square). It’s a lot to pay for a hole that’s 9 feet (3 meters) deep.
Palacinema, Part 2: Seeing that the costs were rising, the city removed the project managers and installed a commissario, or temporary overseer, which cost an additional 1,500,000 euros. (I can’t explain this, I merely report it.) The financial magistrates stated that this whole affair was a “handbook example” of waste of public money.
Ospedale al Mare: Cleaning up and preparing the areas for the new uses, which have yet to even begin being realized, has cost 1,600,000 euros.
The glorious yacht marina at San Nicolo’: 8,000,000 euros spent, with nothing done so far except court cases with lots of accusations. If I had time (and cared), I’d do more research on what could have cost that much for no results.
New traffic layout on the seafront: 2,000,000 euros spent, with no results so far.
Hotel Des Bains: This legendary landmark Belle Epoque hotel, famous for its starring role in “Death in Venice” (book and film), not to mention its 100 years of fabulous guests, remains closed since the project of turning it into a luxury-apartment complex failed. 30,000,000 euros spent so far, and its extraordinary decorations (fabrics, curtains, furniture) were put up for sale, even on the internet.
So yes, we should feel bad that Venice is broke, but we should also feel bad that it got this way because nobody cared about much of anything but themselves.
Prosperity depends on a simple choice: Make more, or spend less. They just got it backward.