Public utilities told to freeze tariffs, cut costs

Economy and Finance Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis asked the heads of public utilities not to increase their tariffs in either 2004 or 2005, and to cut their operational costs significantly. He also warned the public utilities that the government will audit their finances «in depth.» Alogoskoufis also called on public utilities not to increase their labor costs by more than 5 percent this year. «The collective wage agreements must be sent to the Public Utilities Division (of the ministry) for assessment before they are signed,» he said. «Traditionally, raising tariffs was the easy solution for public utilities. At the same time, resources were wasted and there was insufficient backup of any decision regarding tariff raises.» «Our policy calls for zero raises in tariffs during 2004 and 2005. Financial results of the companies should be based on improvements in productivity through operational and administration (cost cuts),» he added. Alogoskoufis said the government wanted public utilities, whose turnover is equal to 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), to «take part in the effort to improve the competitiveness of the Greek economy.» Public utilities’ services should be upgraded. Although he wants to tighten control over public utilities by making most of their important decisions, especially concerning tariffs, subject to his approval, Alogoskoufis wants to disengage the State from their borrowing. In other words, he wants to «minimize state guarantees on public utilities’ borrowing.» The State will also list more utilities on the Athens Stock Exchange and «reduce its participation in some of the listed public utilities.» The listing and selling of shares in public utilities was first applied by the previous, Socialist government. The piecemeal sale of a small minority of shares was attacked by the then conservative opposition, which would have preferred a single «strategic investor.» Contrary, however, to their pronouncements that the previous government was selling public enterprises on the cheap, the method of partial privatizations actually maximized revenue for the State. On the other hand, many public utilities postponed radical changes in management until the State had become, in effect, a minority shareholder.