Running water in Aprilia: Deeds and Misdeeds

Deeds and Misdeeds
Running water in Aprilia: a never-ending course of justice

In this thriving town in Southern Latium (ATO4 district), the privatization of water and water services drove the local people to exasperation when they were unexpectedly hit by a 50% to 330% increase in their water bills. The reaction was instantaneous: a committee was established to protect the most valuable resource of all and a strategy to oppose this form of looting was defined. A harsh battle began, and is still going on, marked by many ups and downs. The moral of the story is that unity and participation are better weapons than intimidation, no matter what form it takes or where it comes from.

In the morning of July 1st 2004, the citizens of Aprilia were casually turning on their taps in order to get washed and go to work. It was an ordinary day and the water looked just the same, or so it seemed. Nice, clear water, drawn from the Carano springs, located close to the former home of Menotto Garibaldi, son of the patriotic hero Giuseppe Garibaldi, a Father of the Fatherland. Yet something critical had happened.

As of that very morning, the one actually managing and operating the springs and tap water of Aprilia was Veolia, a French transnational company, the town having lost its say on the matter. From now on, the running water of Aprilia and of some other 38 Communes integrated in the water sector of the province of Latina would “flow” through Paris.

All was well in the realm of absentminded ignorance until the month of December, when a 23 year old Attac activist decided to alert associations and committees: the sale of the water services to the mixed private-public company Acqualatina S.p.A (51% of AQL is held by Communes of the Region of Latina and 49% by Veolia) would cause serious problems to the community. Although the damage had already been done, everything still looked calm.

In February 2005, a group of alarmed citizens founded the Comitato Cittadino Acqua Pubblica di Aprilia (Citizen’s Committee for Public Water in Aprilia) and started an in-depth investigation into how the transfer of a public service to an almost private operator such as Acqualatina S.p.A (AQL) had occurred. In May 2005, when the first “privatized” water bills started to come in, the increases ranged from 50% to 330%. This led to a series of manifestations and public debates. By then, the Committee had time to get organized and to review all the steps that resulted in the transferral of management of the water supply services and facilities to the new company. It was immediately understood that many legal steps involving the participation of the population and of the town council had been skipped. The company, which was expected to publish the new contractual conditions (conditions that were later declared vexatious by the Court), thought better to simply send the bill along with a request for payment within one month.

The citizens got organized. A strategy is agreed: the bills will be paid but the payment slips will be made out to the municipal entity that managed the water network until 2004. Over 6500 families adhered to the dispute strategy. Obviously AQL reacts and appeals to the judiciary. Since then, a series of civil and administrative cases are constantly being taken to Court, the cost of which is assumed by the citizens who self-tax themselves.

In February 2006, a group of town counselors voted on a resolution rejecting and stigmatizing the sale of the service to the new operator. Other Communes did the same thing. The citizens are disputing many aspects of the company’s startup management. The operator is realizing that if things keep going this way, there is no money to be made out of the blue gold business. It will try to break “resistance” by shutting off the taps of those who keep paying their water bills to the Commune instead of to the corporate operator. The methods become more and more “persuasive”: to disconnect the service, teams of workers are escorted by armed guards.

Although discouraged and weary, the people will not give up. According to AQL, the defaulting families are 6500. The company will have to “catch” them one by one, a difficult task indeed.

Meanwhile, the Company’s Board of Directors, where public administrators sit in harmony with private managers – a BoD which, between 2003 and 2012 depleted over 5 million Euros to compensate their members (about 2. 7 million Euros to private managers and 2. 4 million to public administrators) - is planning its own strategy. While the Communes and the citizens seek legal action in court, a “protective” political entourage changes the management contract, reducing the extent of liabilities that the private endorsed after winning the tender in 2002. For the company, service operations have become increasingly expensive. The private, which has no intention takeoff suffering a loss, will not desist. Since there is an article in the contract, introduced by the private, stipulating that towns will assume responsibility for breakeven costs (always!!!), tariffs will be subject to an adjustment increase of at least 5% each year, from 2004 to 2014.

But money is running out now and, instead of financing operations with its own capital, the company seeks funding from the international financial markets. Even better, it rigs up a loan based on derivatives. In 2006, the Depfa Bank (a mortgage bank) comes to the rescue. It grants a first buffer loan of 35 million euros and then concedes a mortgage for 114. 5 million euros. This is the same Depfa Bank, which, among other things, caused the collapse of the German bank Hypo Real Estate, which the German government seeked to save from bankruptcy by injecting 50 billion euros of public money.

At this point, the markets tumble and things get complicated. We are now in December 2008. The bank asks for more security and will not extend the full loan unless the town signs an agreement by which any decision concerning billing and the management contract will be bound to the “preventive written consensus” of the bank itself. Drought or no drought. Who cares if water becomes scarcer, or if consumption drops? If bringing water into the homes gets expensive, investing in new pipes or new depurators becomes impossible. In other words, the leading priority is to make sure that the loan installments are being paid every six months, and then comes the rest, issues of thirst and public hygiene included. Another decision was taken against the population by managers and politicians who were supposed to protect public interests and instead chose to side up with Veolia.

While mountains of tax demands are piling in, readily challenged by the citizens and set aside in court for breach of statutory procedures, the long-awaited decision finally comes. The Council of State reverses the situation and changes the stakes. The High Court rules in favor of the people recognizing that citizens have the power to act in defense of an abusive management contract and grants the Commune of Aprilia full freedom to reject the concession of the water service to AQL. The Commune can finally proceed to recover the management of its water provision services. On April 21st 2010, the town council notifies the ATO4 sector and the company to restore the management contract in compliance to the rules of law. The Conference of ATO4 Mayors held on the 21st of July rejected the town’s request. Hence, as of August the municipal entity can take legal action to regain ownership of the facilities and re-establish public management. The newly elected Mayor, supported by a team of civic lists must, at this point, comply with the mandate bestowed to him by the citizens. He needs to reinstate the dignity of the citizens by turning the NO ACQUALATINA slogan of the electoral campaign into the emblem of a new local democracy. An intricate challenge that must be won in order to make the citizen’s voice count. We have the duty to demonstrate that global finance and economy cannot liquefy communities because, as we write water, we read democracy! Unfortunately Aprilia’s headstrong and determined mayor dies in the course of things but the ensuing administration follows in his footsteps and pursues the battle in concert with the citizens.

Proceedings for the re-establishment of the water facilities will soon be discussed before the Administrative Court (TAR) of Latina but in the meantime, the citizens won all their disputes concerning the payment of tax demands sent out by AQL and had them cancelled. According to Cassation High Court ruling, the company could not resort to this forceful method compulsory fee collection. The corporation does not desist and files over 500 new lawsuits against “defaulting” citizens, even if these have paid their water service dues directly to the town. The citizens endure and the legal battle is in full force. At present, citizens have won 130 proceedings and lost only 6!

For its part, the municipal entity is doing everything it can to defend the interests of the community, and has even challenged in court the new national Authority which supervises water management issues and that is trying to restore the return on capital invested by the operator, repealed by the referendum held in Italy on June 12 and 13 2011. Aprilia doesn’t quit and neither do the people!

The operator’s financial and economical situation is close to collapse by now and, before the company’s obvious bankruptcy, the State, in its usual attempt to help the private, offers to buy the private shares of the corporation on the pretext that it wants to start a remunicipalization process! A sly way to leave the towns with an enormous debt load created by a private management who wants out without losing money, the same old story of privatizing profits and socializing losses! But this tricked remunicipalization proposal does not convince many Mayors who side with the citizens in revolt. And who knows, maybe this time will be the time when citizens and administrators will unite against the arrogance of privates and conniving politicians.

A story that still needs to be written.

Alberto de Monaco

About the author: Alberto De Monaco moved to Aprilia in 1991 for family and employment purposes. Aprilia is not his hometown, but when he understands the risk level to which the community gets exposed to when it loses control over the management of such a crucial resource as water, he throws himself into the cause and works day and night, putting aside personal interests such as volunteer work in schools and theater. Little by little, with the help of friends and pensioners eager to help the city, he established a committee and started to investigate the entire water issue. Alberto’s specific experience leads him around Italy to tell the story of Aprilia and the involvement a community who, starting from the grassroots up, chose to react without waiting for providential help.