With his craggy face, diamond earring and tattooed wrist, Thessaloniki Mayor Yannis Boutaris looks an unlikely candidate to turn around the finances of Greece’s second-biggest city.
However, the 70-year old, who stands apart from the political mainstream, is pulling off reforms that have so far evaded the national government in a three-year-old debt crisis that has sucked in about 150 billion euros (US$191 billion) of international aid.
In contrast to the rest of Greece, this seafront city of 1 million is shrinking debt, cutting business taxes to help firms and paying city employees and contractors on time.
It is saving money by holding competitive tenders for the paper, plastic bags and milk it buys — a departure from the past practice of relying on a few, chosen providers.
“There was unacceptable inertia, even incompetence. I just couldn’t believe it,” Boutaris said in an interview. “I said: ‘Folks, from now on we change the way things are done and whoever doesn’t like it can walk out of the door.’”
City officials now pay for snacks and coffee. Thessaloniki residents bring their own envelopes and rubber bands when submitting applications and requests.
Changing mentalities in Greece is about as hard as getting off booze, said Boutaris, a recovering alcoholic who has not touched a drop in 20 years.
Direct to the point of admitting in a TV interview shortly after his election in November 2010 that he had used drugs, Boutaris advocates that state workers’ jobs-for-life status should be scrapped, anathema to almost all Greek politicians.
In a country that reeks of corruption, but where no politician has yet been convicted, Greece’s first big corruption trial started in the city in September. Boutaris’ predecessor and 17 other former officials are charged with embezzling 51 million euros from city coffers, about as much as Thessaloniki is spending on public construction each year.
Many citizens appreciate the style of their mayor, who won office two years ago by a mere 300 votes, the second time he had run for the post.
“The city functions better now, I wish all of Greece would work like that,” pensioner Zaharias Vavelidis said.
Thessaloniki will run a budget surplus this year and is boosting construction projects, such as a new promenade, said 49-year-old Hasdai Kapon, a former broker whom Boutaris appointed to run the city’s finances.
“We let the market work and manage to do more with less,” Kapon said at his office, where a shelf is laden with finance and management books.
Such efforts earned Boutaris the title “Mayor of the Month” from the City Mayors’ Foundation, a London-based international think tank for urban affairs, which said the rest of Greece should follow his example.
Boutaris visited German cities to tap their know-how. He says he understands German frustration with Greek failure to reform.
“They have become convinced that by spending money on Greece they throw their money out of the window. I myself am convinced that without big reforms, no matter how much money is thrown at Greece, it will be wasted,” he said.
The ancient city was hit harder than any other by the economic crisis. The local unemployment rate has more than tripled to 29 percent since 2008, when the country plunged into recession; that is 5 percentage points above the national average.