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St. Petersburg Times, May 28, 2004

Cold Citizens Not Warm To Price Reform

By Vladimir Kovalev

Whoever I talk to these days complains about how cold their apartments are. They say they have to sleep under two blankets, switch on several rings on their cooking stove or spend most of the day in the bathtub just to keep warm. However, the last option is possible only if hot water is present, which is a real difficulty in summer.

That is how the so-called central heating system operates. It makes people suffer on hot spring days when the heating works, but is not needed, and people also suffer when it's off if a series of cold days occur.

The system would be fine if the communal service providers were able to adapt to changes in the weather, but instead they follow a plan for which they keep a bottle of vodka on their table that they empty in toasts to Governor Valentina Matviyenko's health when the official heating season ends.

Last New Year's Eve, a drunken worker fell asleep on a switch for an electricity substation in the Leningrad Oblast and gave several thousands of the region's residents the pleasure of lighting their gatherings with their families and friends with candles only.

St. Petersburg's official heating season ended May 5. The communal service providers wasted energy for more than a week beforehand while conditions in city apartments were like being in a Finnish sauna. Outside the temperature surpassed 20 degrees Celsius on some days.

A week after the heating was switched off, the outside temperature dropped to about 10 degrees during the day time and close to 0 degrees at night. But the communal service providers had done their job for this year and don't care that a significant part of the city's population is sneezing and coughing.

One City Hall official told me that the reason so many are is that they "run around in summer clothes while it's cold outside."

Oh, well ...

Combined with an absence of hot water in many districts, the lack of heating can be noticed even more acutely these days.

The poor service offers little justification for the Legislative Assembly to pass a City Hall bill that will raise the charges for communal services. It looks as if the bill will pass anyway, which makes Matviyenko's policy look absurd.

In a market economy, prices for a product will rise when demand for it is high. According to Matviyenko's logic, the price can go up even when the product does not exist.

Some will say more money is needed to fix the system, and therefore charges must be raised. If I thought the extra money would be well spent, I would have to agree, but my recent experience does not give me any hope.

A friend told me the other day his family pays up to $100 for communal services for an apartment located in downtown St. Petersburg. But a private company, which is in charge of the building, cannot even keep the staircase and yard free of rubbish.

Calculations made by the Yabloko faction of the Legislative Assembly show the planned fee hike will add 3.5 billion rubles ($120 million) to City Hall's coffers. To keep clean one stairway in a 9-story building, the city budget will receive on average 3,300 rubles ($113) a month or up to $600 for cleaning a building with up to five staircases. Currently each such building pays only $150 for the service, but how this money is used and by whom is a big question.

Cleaners should really be happy about such financing, but will they do the job? I doubt it.


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St. Petersburg Times, May 28, 2004

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