Monday, 1 October 2012

Another reason Spain is in the mess it's in: 'la caja única'

(c) 2012 CampoPulse
SPAIN The term literally means 'the only box', but perhaps a less literal translation might be 'the single pot', which would explain yet another reason for this country to be in the mess it is. In very general terms, the term is used to describe what happens with taxpayers' money. The government, at whatever level, gets or gives itself a grant or subsidy for a particular project, based usually though not always on an estimate for that job. The money gets put into the caja única, or into the general pot. Accounting methods are rarely clear to the outsider, not least because there is no law in Spain similar to that of the Freedom of Information laws in other countries (there were murmurings about it at the beginning of the year, but nothing since). If there were, it is likely that financing public works would be a great deal less obscure - and the lining of pockets YOU WILL SOON BE UNABLE TO READ THE REST OF ITEMS LIKE THIS WITHOUT A SUBSCRIPTION>>>
much less prolific.

Politicians and business people, often developers, are very rarely imprisoned or even substantially fined, though they are often accused and charged and bailed and then dismissed for lack of proof. 

The word accountant, incidentally, is translated as contable - i.e. 'countable', but not 'accountable'. There is even a layer of bureaucrats at the bottom end of government, at municipal level, called Secretarios, who are supposed to burn a candle for the law. They are often rounded up for dodgy financial scandals at the same time as the councillors and 'trusted personnel' (to which every council is entitled, but that's another story) for looking the other way at crucial times.

The more honest Secretarios seem to be employed from town hall to town hall, rarely settling in anywhere, and leaving -or being dismissed- as soon as the councillors in power realise they are actually going to do their job properly.

The caja única is one of the reasons there are so many unfinished public, particularly municipal, buildings through out the country. Everywhere you go, there are projects or buildings that are almost completed or in various stages of completion.

For example, in the small village of Jimena de la Frontera, in the province of Cádiz, a short walk up the hill towards and beyond the town hall, you will come across four different buildings that are unused or unlicensed for use.

On one of these, thick cables hang loose, unfixed to the wall. It has been like this for almost ten years. Another municipal building at the very entrance to the village, a former grain silo originally scheduled to become an ethnic museum and crafts centre, is painted outside, but utterly neglected inside. It is in danger of becoming yet another place to store tubs of paint, battered street signs and lamps, and other municipal detritus.

A beautiful old pensión, turned over to the Council last year, is in danger of becoming the village's large number of feral cats' favourite gathering place. The many layers of lime that bear the weight of history and give it the ethereal quality that makes it such a beautiful building peel off with every change in weather. Some €400,000 was granted in June for its renovation. Nothing has moved there, nor is it likely to. Wooden windows have caved in under the weight of rainy seasons past. Questions at the town hall point to the caja única without actually using the phrase, but it is not possible to find out if the money has been received or not.

Given that the Council is having vast problems paying its already reduced staff, chances are this beautiful old maiden -which should have a protection order slapped on it right now- will sit in dusty neglect for a good long time yet.

This is in a pueblo of only 3,000 inhabitants, under a third of a municipality of 10,000. It is not difficult to project similar things onto larger towns and cities all over the country.

This is not to say that places that have been well managed do not exist. There are plenty of those. A quick survey of just a few of them brandishing the question of the existence of a caja única, usually got the questioner bounced from one department to another, from councillor to another, and right off the line. And they were some of the better ones. We didn't bother to ask the others.

Regional governments are rife with 'single boxes'. We don't need to explain any further, as the same principle applies. The difference is in the amount of money that somehow gets used for purposes other than that which it was meant for. This, of course, accounts for several airports having been constructed at vast expense in various regions over the last few years, most if not all still awaiting their first inbound flight. It is difficult to find out exactly how many there actually are, as no official information is available - well, it wouldn't be, would it? (An interesting report from last year in the MailOnline, not our usual reading material, admittedly.)

The term is also used to explain how the Social Security system works. It's the same principle: What you and I pay in, what the employers pay in, and anything else that pays in (is there anything else?) goes into a 'single pot'. From here come pensions, unemployment and other benefits, subsidies for employment schemes, etc. etc. It is, says the government, the only way to guarantee that everyone gets an equal share of the pie. It seems to work in this case, but there is always a temptation to use the money for something else.

In fact, the Social Security system's pension fund, which had been accumulating an excellent 'emergency fund', was raided recently to pay for something else. It 'only represented 3% of the total', said the government. These days the only thing to be resisted is temptation, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde.

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