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Darkness and Debt: German Cities Get Creative to Slash Costs

Der Spiegel, 19 June 2013

Outwardly, at least, Germany is thriving. But some 130 billion euros in combined debt are forcing communities to find creative ways to cut costs. The city of Goslar, for example, hopes that killing the lights at night will bring a brighter future.

"So, can you see anything? Nothing, right? You see absolutely nothing. Cool, no?" says Oliver Junk. It's a bit past midnight, and Junk is right. There's nothing to see, absolutely nothing but the deep, dark night.

Junk, a tall man in his late thirties who sports old-fashioned glasses, is the mayor of Goslar, a small city in the northwestern German state of Lower Saxony. He's standing on the empty terrace of a restaurant on a hill outside the city, which presumably is quite a nice place by the light of day. The location also offers a fantastic panoramic view over Goslar. Or at least that's what Junk says. "Yes, yes, that's definitely Goslar down there."

The fact that Goslar has disappeared into complete blackness has less to do with the fog than with Junk, who turned off every one of the city's street lights, with only a very few exceptions. Every day, when the clock strikes midnight, the lights go out. Goslar needs to cut expenses, Junk explains, and that applies to lights too. "This saves €100,000 ($134,000) a year," he says.

It's a bit surreal to stand on this terrace with its invisible panorama, gaze down at an unseen Goslar and talk with Junk. We've only just gotten used to this new Germany, this healthy, chubby-cheeked Germany, this country that has emerged strong from the economic crisis, this champion of reform, this global exporting powerhouse, this workers' paradise.

Long gone is the era when Friedrich Merz, a politician with Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), appeared on a TV talk show and explained with a worry-creased forehead that it would be necessary to turn the country inside out. Germany implemented reforms, made cuts, pared down, demanded sacrifice — and seemed to have reached its goal. But, after all those exertions, it's a bit of a shock to stand next to Junk and see that the lights truly have gone out.

"We're not an exception," Junk says, as he weaves his way through the rows of chairs on the patio, trying not to break his neck in the process. He names other cities in the state as well as ones in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. Times are hard, Junk says, and Germany's cities have combined debts of some €130 billion.

Goslar isn't a rich city, but it isn't poor, either. Its cafés still serve up coffee topped with whipped cream. Goslar has a population of roughly 40,000 and €60 million in short-term debt, for which it pays €730,000 in annual interest. In addition, it has €30 million in long-term loans and €17 million worth of debts related to pending operations.

Cut, Cut, Cut

"I told people it couldn't go on like that. And that we had to do something about it," the mayor says. Junk studied law in the Bavarian city of Bayreuth, where he later served as a city council member, then as district chairman for the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party. He hoped to be elected to Bavaria's state parliament, but then the CDU in Goslar went looking for a candidate to field in the city's mayoral election. Junk got the call. He gave himself eight weeks for his electoral campaign, knocked at practically every door in the city, declared it a "new start" — something which he believes "is never a bad thing" — and won with 45 percent of the vote.

That was almost two years ago. Now Junk is driving through his city in his official car. It's long past midnight. The trees along the streets are little more than shadows, and the only light in the side streets is the weak flickering of TVs seen through living room windows.

Junk points at the street lamps. "All out," he says. He doesn't seem to mind how bleak this makes his city look. Some people here have taken to calling him the "prince of darkness," and Junk likes the name. He sees himself as a trendsetter. Sure, there have been some complaints, such as those from newspaper carriers, who now have to find mailboxes by flashlight, or from nurses working the late shift. But, by and large, there has been no great resistance. Junk has left the lights on in the few places that need to remain lit for the sake of road safety.

"People understand that the government has to economize," he says. First comes darkness, then the light at the end of the tunnel. That's the usual order of things.

The first thing Junk did after assuming office was to write a list. Then he posted the list online and let the city's residents choose where to make cuts, a process he dubbed "dialogue." The term makes it sound this was something residents could actually debate — but it wasn't. The city needs to cut spending by half. If Goslar reaches this target within the next decade, the state government will assume responsibility for 75 percent of the city's debts. If it doesn't, the state government won't. So, in reality, there was little to vote on.

Junk's list included such items as "reduction of playgrounds," "reorganization of city parking" and "cuts to youth work." Shutting off street lights ended up in 12th place on the list. "That's a good result," Junk says. "People need guidance; you need to explain things to them. But then they'll go along with a lot of things."

Junk parks in front of his house. He lives on a hill with a view over the city. His street is also pitch black.

New elections are coming up in a few months. For financial reasons, Goslar will be consolidated with the neighboring town of Vienenburg. Junk plans to run for mayor again. His chances are good — so good, in fact, that the opposition has opted to not even field a candidate.