Village volunteers working off debts

State of bankruptcy means residents must take over municipal tasks

Higuera volunteers painting the walls of an old sports center.
Higuera volunteers painting the walls of an old sports center.A. L.

In Higuera de la Serena, a village in Badajoz province, Sunday is the longest working day of the week. Skipping the day of rest is not the only thing that people here do differently. Over 100 of the 1,041 residents of Higuera sweep the streets, trim the trees and fix the local fountain without charging a cent for it.

Ricardo Estrella, 60, is a carpenter in early retirement who repairs anything that is made of wood. María del Mar Tena Bueno used to do clerical work in the town hall, but now she is unemployed and cleans the streets twice a week. When the local swimming pool opens, she will man the ticket booth. They are both part of a group of volunteers who are doing their share to pull their village out of its financial hole. Their political representatives are also contributing to the collective effort by giving up their public salaries.

These drastic measures are the result of years of bad management, the locals say. Now, Higuera owes 800,000 euros, partly because of a building standing at the edge of town.

In 2000, the regional government of Extremadura authorized construction of a retirement home here. Building work ended last year, but the home was built following residential criteria. In 2006 there was a change in legislation and senior residences now have to follow hospital building guidelines. The way things are now, the stretchers do not fit through the hallways and there is no emergency evacuation plan. The people of Higuera will have to pay for the necessary changes if they want their retirement home to pass the test.

In Higuera de la Serena, Sunday is the longest working day of the week

The town has already invested 12,000 euros to build the power grid that will feed a project that would have employed over a dozen workers, including nurses, caregivers and physiotherapists.

The village has no money left for trash removal, garden maintenance or even for the library. Where there were once two street sweepers working full time, there is now just one part-time worker. It is the same story with the gardeners. But it is the culture department which has sustained the deepest cuts: there is just one librarian on duty for a couple of hours a day. In the good old days, the town even had money to hire three event organizers full-time.

In order to meet its payment obligations with suppliers, Higuera applied for a special adjustment plan designed by the Finance Ministry for municipalities in distress. A check for 300,000 euros arrived last month and helped pay around 20 businesses that were hired by the previous Socialist administration for maintenance work and mobile telephony services.

In exchange for the cash, the town is not allowed to spend a single euro for the next two years; the state will watch its every move and the money will have to be returned at an interest rate of 5.6 percent over the next decade.

We've been bailed out; we breathed a sigh of relief with this cash injection"

"We've been bailed out," notes Deputy Mayor Manuel Tamayo Ignacio, a 46-year-old teacher with an easy smile who wears jeans and a checkered shirt.

On a recent Monday, a dozen locals gathered at a rundown sports center. They brought rollers, buckets and plaster to fix a peeling wall at the entrance. It was midday, and not a breath of air was running through the valley, but that did not stop Celestino Gómez Pérez from forcefully peeling off the posters from the latest election campaign.

"All politicians are a bunch of shameless scoundrels; they have brought ruin upon us," he muttered. Deputy Mayor Tamayo, who was there, did not seem to take any notice. He and Mayor Manuel García Murillo, of the United Left coalition grouping, were the first to give up the 1,200 euros a month they are entitled to as elected officials.

Higuera de la Serena is just one of 2,619 municipalities struggling to pay their bills. For them, requesting a loan from the state was a temporary way out of their problems. Madrid approved 2,350 applications, and expects the money to be used to pay over 1.7 million bills worth 9.3 billion euros.

"With this cash injection we breathed a sigh of relief," says Tamayo. "It's awful to see small and midsized business owners crying and begging you to pay them because they have no money for food."

Oliva de Mérida, a village just 54 kilometers from Higuera, was denied the money by the Finance Ministry. With its sober-looking church overlooking the houses, it shares many traits with Higuera. Just like García Murillo, Juan Carlos Benítez, the mayor of Oliva, has held the post for under a year. He was born right here in the village 30 years ago, and ran for mayor out of popular demand.

"I was never interested in political parties, but a lot of people asked me to run, and I did so with the Popular Party," he explains.

When Benítez discovered the "hole" in the accounts, his reaction was a lot like that of García Murillo: he gave up his mayoral salary. Many residents appreciated this. Now, some of them have volunteered to open and close the cemetery gates, mend the odd fence and collect the trash. Meanwhile, the mayor has applied for the financial aid again. He will find out in July whether Oliva got it this time around. If the answer is no again, he does not know how they will pay the one million euros the village owes in unpaid bills.

So the locals are still worrying about their future, and thinking up ways they might create jobs and generate growth. Perhaps the answer lies in their pastures filled with merino sheep and acorn-eating pigs that provide the much sought-after jamón de bellota.

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