What's wrong with Wroclaw?

(fot. Piotr Lewandowski)
(fot. Piotr Lewandowski)
Given that all EU citizens are highly encouraged to vote during the upcoming local elections in Poland, hack we even have e.g. an Italian running for the city council from KWW Lewica Wrocławska, I decided to reach out “across the aisle” to our friends who are yet to master the Polish language. While I am not quite a supporter of tabloids dictating how news is meant to be delivered, I do understand that today’s posts need to be crisp, concise and to the point which is why you will only get the "what needs to be changed part", here. The solutions part will follow though not necessarily in English given that I have been encouraged to use this platform primarily in Polish after posting this article.

So, what is wrong with Wroclaw? A lot, 25 years of continuous right wing politics have really devastated this city. Wroclaw has the worst public transportation system, the biggest traffic jams, the most polluted air – together with Krakow, has one of the biggest shortages of flats for low income families and is last when compared to Warsaw, Poznan, Lodz, Krakow or Katowice in terms of the availability of kindergarten slots for children aged 3 – 5 – to name just a few. But above all, we have the highest debt per inhabitant among all Polish cities.


Let me be a bit more specific when it comes to the financial situation. After all, no matter what you wish to improve first, even if you would only want to lower the tax burden on this city’s inhabitants – given the disastrous situation outlined in the previous paragraph, this is by no means a priority of mine – you need to stop financing prior debt with new loans and eliminate the budget deficit. In the case of Wroclaw, you need to do it fast. Otherwise, this city is bound for bankruptcy. When Rafał Dutkiewicz took office for the first time in 2002, the city basically had 0 debt. This was quite extraordinary if you take the big flood of 1997 into account. Anyhow, during his 3 terms as city mayor, the official debt exploded, by the end of 2014 if will surpass 2.5 billion PLN or about 700 million euro. To put this into perspective, the total budget of the city – together with all its city-owned companies – is about 4 billion PLN. I said official, didn’t I? Because of legal regulations, a city in Poland cannot increase its debt beyond 60% of its yearly income. This is why a lot of Wroclaw’s dept has been moved to those city-owned companies. They struggle under a burden of at least another 2 billion PLN themselves. You might argue that this is simply an example of creative book keeping. It certainly is, but it is legal. Now, this does not make it any less alarming, of course. Still, even the 2.5 billion I mentioned at the beginning demand quick action.

Let’s dive deeper. If you look at this year’s budget, something I spent my summer evenings on this year – yes, I know, there are far more pleasant alternatives to this indeed – the overall deficit is 190 million. Additionally, 250 million are being borrowed in order to pay back earlier loans. On top of that, over 258 million come from selling public property. Those among you who have already surrendered to the notion of private companies always being better at anything might rejoice, but try to understand the dimension of what is happening here for a moment. Imagine you would have a shortage of money. Would you really sell some furniture, electronics or a car – not yours, of course, but the one belonging to your neighbor? What seems insane, and rightly so, in our own lifes, cannot be the right way to proceed when the lifes of hundreds of thousands of people living in Wroclaw are at stake. Yet, this is exactly how this city is financing itself, by selling out its property bit by bit, year over year. Some of it gets some public attention as it is the case with the demolition of the central bus station – yes, take a peak at it while you can, it will be gone soon, most of it just happens quietly in the back office of Rafał Dutkiewicz. In short, in order to put this city back on its feet, you first need to introduce budget cuts in excess of 698 million PLN.

But wait, aren’t we worst when it comes to traffic jams, air pollution, the lack of recreational facilities, missing kindergarten capacity and so much more? Yes, and this is just the peak of the iceberg. Mentality is the real issue. Let me give you a few examples, just a handful. What would you do if you had hundreds of buildings which people live in? I guess you would take good care of them. After all, these inhabitants correctly pay their bills, so you should also deliver. Well, it turns out that Wroclaw’s city officials have a bit of a different view on this. Since the turn of the century, funding for necessary reconstruction work has been gradually cut, many believe it was done purposefully. Why? If you do not take care of any properly, it will start to degrade. At a certain point in time, it will have rotten so much that it does not make sense financially to rescue it. Polish law allows investors, if they can prove so, to request an exemption in order to be allowed to take down such a building and build a new one. What are the consequences of this? You can easily throw out the current inhabitants, demolish the building and build an entirely new one. Now, you would think that the city – and its officials – would be interested in securing the future of those who currently live in city-owned buildings. Likewise, it appears quite natural to me to protect these buildings, many of which are historically valuable samples of 19th century architecture. Unfortunately, none of this is true. Wroclaw is actually interested in these buildings becoming ruins as quickly as possible because they can sell them off to private investors, obviously interested in demolishing them and replacing them with new ones or selling off the land to other investors again. This way, the city – and possibly some of its officials – can earn some extra cash. Yes, the homes of thousands of people in Wroclaw will be gone, and we will irreversibly loose a beautiful part of this city’s history, but neither of these arguments has any meaning to Rafał Dutkiewicz and his crew. To show that this is not pure propaganda: Between 30 and 130 apartment buildings are scheduled to be demolished over the coming months alone.

We are just getting started. Transportation is another huge area for development. Almost 30 years ago, the Lewis-Mogridge position has been formulated. “It captures the observation that the more roads are built, the more traffic there is to fill these roads.” As such, the only way to successfully combat congestion is stopping building roads, yes stopping building roads. Instead, one needs to invest in public transportation because it cannot be beaten when it comes to efficiency, speed and comfort. What does Wroclaw do? Well, we have some of the oldest trams in operation. Every 2 out of 3 trams will actually need to be retired over the next 5 – 10 years. In 2014, we spent about 250 million on new roads and 0 PLN on new trams or tram tracks. You do the math. This is a dead end. This is even more disturbing as we enter the 2014 – 2022 EU budget. Here, about 14 billion PLN is up for grabs for Polish cities to invest in environmentally-friendly transportation. What are Wroclaw’s plans? How many new trams will we get? None. The officials intend to turn the old trams you see in the streets, built back in 1975, into new trams by combining parts of them. This undertaking makes no sense from a technical point of view because you will get nothing more but 40 year old trams with a few new parts. Krakow has tried 2 years ago with a similar pilot project though with a single tram while Wroclaw wants to build 60 of them right away. The so called Protram 405N, now, spends most of his time being broken and waiting to be repaired. Krakow concluded never to do something like this again. Even more money is meant to be spent on a tram-train infrastructure. This means equipping trams to run on train tracks. I will spare you the technical details, but this is just out of this world. It combines the low speed and capacity of trams with the relatively low frequency of today’s suburban trains. It is the worst of both worlds. Why so many mistakes? Because the people who plan this never intend to use it. They view such systems as a toy at best and as a waste of money at worst because they belong to a mentally retarded generation of Polish politicians who build their own reputation around the size of their car’s engine, not the ingenuity of their own visions.

One of the most saddening aspects of Wroclaw, though, has nothing to do with kindergartens or cars, it is the rising of the extreme right. You can see that by the extremists having as many as 3 candidates running for the office of city mayor. Even one of the leaders of the most extreme party among them, the National Movement (Ruch Narodowy), actually living in Warsaw, is running for mayor in Wroclaw himself. He denies attacks on people of different skin color or origin as “pseudo-attacks”, he did so even in my face during a recent debate between candidates for the office of mayor. This is no longer a hypothetical thread, meant for academic debates in closed circles of post-graduate sociologists. This is a real, tangible, mounting thread to anyone who is not white, not Catholic or happens to represent a different view on economics, gay rights, really anything nationalists could happen to deem inappropriate, If you, my dear EU citizen, ever needed a strong reason to go and vote on November 16th, this is it.

Can we do anything about this? Sure, all EU citizens can register with the local authorities (speaking of mentality, there is no English version of this site) and vote on Sunday next week .
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