Amid utility hikes, Florence has a creative solution for retirees

Energy costs across Europe are soaring. As more people on fixed income scramble to pay for significant hikes in bills, leaders in Florence, Italy, have a solution: an “Adopt-a-Bill” fundraising campaign that helps retirees keep the lights on. 

Domenico Stinellis/AP
Luigi Boni, a Florentine retiree, shows the latest water bill in his house on Feb. 17, 2022. Mr. Boni said that he can't cope with the hike in utility bills this winter. He was included in the "Adopt-a-Bill" program that helps elderly people in need pay bills.

Florence is famed for its contributions to Italian art, architecture, and cuisine. But these days, local leaders in the city regarded as the birthplace of the Renaissance are concerned with more mundane matters: paying the bills.

Amid soaring energy costs across Europe, officials at Palazzo Vecchio – the building that serves as Florence’s city hall as well as a museum – have teamed up with a local nonprofit to help fixed-income retirees keep their power on through an “Adopt-a-Bill” fundraising campaign.

“Florence is a city where you live well, and for this reason, too, people live very long,” Mayor Dario Nardella said.

A significant number of Florence’s retirees, however, live on less than 9,000 euros ($10,205) a year and can’t afford to make ends meet with an expected 55% increase in home electricity costs and a 42% hike in residential gas bills, he said.

Widower Luigi Boni, 96, confirms that. He says that by the end of February, he will have emptied his bank account and spent his monthly pension check of under 600 euros ($680) before covering utilities.

“Either I eat or I pay the rent,” Mr. Boni said as he sat on his sofa with a daily newspaper in his hands.

To assist him and others among Florence’s estimated 30,000 residents over age 65 and living alone, the city administration launched the fundraising campaign with the nonprofit Montedomini Foundation, which runs projects aimed at helping the city’s retirees.

The campaign raised 33,000 euros (more than $37,000) in its first few days. Private citizens, including Florentines living abroad, made more than 200 donations, according to the city’s welfare counselor, Sara Funaro.

“Our goal is to raise funds to make sure that every elderly person who asks us for help can receive help to cover the increase in bills due to [energy costs] increasing,” Ms. Funaro said.

Spiking energy prices are raising utility bills – and driving a record rise in inflation – from Poland to the United Kingdom. In response, governments across Europe are rushing to pass aid for residents and businesses as utility companies pass on costs to consumers.

In Turkey, where the economic pressure is extreme and has fueled protests, Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir are among opposition-led municipalities with similar “Adopt-a-Bill” initiatives. Istanbul’s municipal website says nearly 49 million Turkish lira (about $3.6 million) was donated since 2020, covering 320,000 utility bills.

Italian Premier Mario Draghi’s government has passed measures valued at more than 8 billion euros ($9 billion) to help blunt the impact of soaring energy prices for businesses and individuals.

The government’s most recent decree, issued Feb. 18, also had a forward-looking component: it looked to accelerate Italy’s transition to more renewable energy sources, particularly solar power, to make the country less dependent on imported supplies.

Italy currently imports 90% of its gas, much of it from Russia, and Mr. Draghi has insisted that any European Union sanctions to punish Russia for recognizing two separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine must exempt the energy sector.

The Italian mayors’ association has said the government’s response has so far been insufficient to help cities cope with hundreds of millions of euros in additional energy costs, making them choose between balancing budgets or cutting services.

Florence, Rome, and other cities kept their municipal monuments and local government buildings dark on Feb. 10 to draw attention to the situation.

Florence’s Adopt-a-Bill campaign enjoys popular support. As well as being a top tourist destination, the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region has a long record of successfully providing social services to poor and vulnerable residents.

“It’s a great initiative because you can help people who can’t make it to pay a bill that in a shameless way has reached unsustainable costs,” said Luca Menoni, the owner of a butcher’s shop in Florence’s Sant’Ambrogio indoor food market.

“I myself am paying a [electricity] bill double what I used to,” Mr. Menoni said.

Mr. Boni may be getting some help with his energy bills to get him through the winter and stave off an expected move into a nursing home. But he still has a tight budget that doesn’t allow many luxuries.

“Steaks? Meat? Let’s not even talk about it. I eat [cheap] packaged food,” he said. After his wife died, he said, “I became an expert in economic cooking.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Nicole Winfield in Rome, and Zeynep Bilginsoy, in Istanbul, contributed to this report.

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