Ano Liosia: All well on the drawing board

Ano Liosia, in western Athens, is the municipality with the largest revenue in Attica, but it is heavily in debt. Ex-mayor Nikos Papadimas has been charged with financial crimes, hundreds of earthquake victims are still living in container homes eight years after a strong tremor, and the local garbage dump is a source of pollution. Homes built for the victims of the 1999 quake stand half-finished, dozens of container settlements dot the landscape, roads are unsurfaced, water pipes are broken, dust eddies whirl about. The town hall in Iroon Square is surrounded by scaffolding – renovation works are in progress – but inside, municipal companies’ offices are abandoned. The municipality’s debts, together with those of the municipal companies, amount to over 300 million euros. Yet over the past 15 years the municipality has been paid 6 percent of Attica residents’ municipal fees in order to offset the presence of the only waste dump in Attica, a sum that is equivalent to about 30 million euros annually. As usual, the only ones to profit from this fortune have been those clever enough to line their own pockets. The local soccer team, Akratitos, has acquired a stadium of professional standards, has paid out fortunes in recruiting top-name players and rose to the first division in record time, only to slide down to the fourth once the bubble had burst. «We are living in a time when the truth is being hidden behind lies, and lies behind the truth,» wrote Petros Xerokasitis in the local newspaper, Enimerosi. «In our municipality, we have used lies to build a ‘model’ town and a few truths to make it what it is now. Ano Liosia should actually be called a town on the drawing board. That’s the only place it exists, the only place where everything is as it should be, with green spaces, pedestrian zones and a city park full of people.» However, the books did not balance during an Economy Ministry audit in July 2004, following charges filed by municipal employees. They found a deficit of 53.7 million euros in the management of the Ano Liosia Consignment and Loans Fund. Another deficit of 15.4 million euros was found in the municipality’s financial service that was operating unlawfully. The deficits were laid in the lap of Papadimas and the local government revenue inspector. The major earthquake of September 7, 1999, the epicenter of which was at neighboring Fyli, caused enormous damage in Ano Liosia. The state first handed out tents, then caravans, then later container homes to the thousands made homeless. Dozens of container settlements sprung up within Ano Liosia. The state awarded each of the victims an interest-free loan of 163,400 drachmas per square meter in compensation for the loss of their homes, while the quake-resistant elements of the container homes were paid for in full by the European Union and the Public Investments Program. That was when Nikos Papadimas stepped in and asked the earthquake victims to hand over their compensation payments to the municipality which, in cooperation with a consortium, comprising Aktor, Elliniki Technodomiki and TEB, were to build new homes faster and at lower prices. The «Anaplasi» (Restoration) program, as it was called, provided for a redrafting of the town plan and public spaces. The temptation was too great for most people to resist, and compensation payments were paid straight into the coffers of the municipality’s construction department. The project was tendered in 2001 and provided for the erection of 1,022 dwellings (2,500 apartments) within 18 months. That is not exactly what happened, however. «Our house was first destroyed by flooding in 1998. The money we got from the state as aid went to the municipality for repairs. A few months later the quake struck,» said Stavroula Piastopoulou. «We got into the reconstruction program and deposited all the money with the municipality. I paid 47,000 euros in three installments. They invited us to come and see the design, to choose the bathroom fittings, heaters, the balcony railings, and that was it. They forgot about us. If someone made a fuss, they would come along and dig a hole for the basement. Then we had to make another fuss for the concrete, another for the walls. They left the walls half-finished and went off to build somewhere else, where people were making an even bigger fuss. Priority went to the supporters of (the then ruling) PASOK party and to the original inhabitants, the Arvanites (Ed. note: descendants of 14th century settlers from Albania). We have been here since 1970 but they still call us outsiders.» Only 29 homes have been built with the earthquake compensation funds. «We could never find the mayor, he was always in hiding,» said Anna Piastopoulou. «It wasn’t just the state subsidies. Aid came from other states, from the Church, from private individuals. Those in the know made fortunes out of the earthquake.» The rest have had to take delivery of half-finished homes. The consortium packed up and left at the end of 2004. Many home owners have had to take out new loans to finish the job and some of these homes have already been repossessed by the banks. Unfortunately, the only homes and stores completed belong to those who escaped the clutches of the municipal authority and invested the compensation payments more wisely. The future looks grim for the region’s 23,000 inhabitants. The new mayor, Christos Pappous, a 39-year-old physics teacher, is trying to clean up the mess. He is asking the Interior Ministry for money to finish the homes. He is also trying to secure funds for staff in municipal companies who haven’t been paid for months and trying to guarantee their jobs by having them transferred elsewhere. He is seeking a restoration tax for the next 20 years, citing the ecological burden on the area from the landfill site and is planning a solar energy farm and sports center to be built on the land reclaimed from the landfill. Most of the local residents no longer live in hope. There are exceptions, however. «I have decided to live here.» says Eleni Koliou. «So far I have paid a high price for it, but sometimes… it seems that anything is possible.» (1) This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s color supplement, K, on May 6.