There was a time when Wolfgang Moegerle went nowhere without carrying a big piggy bank under his arm. A yellow-green, 60 cm long porcelain animal, with large letters on his stomach: "We make Algermissen debt-free". No matter which even small event, the senior afternoons in the retirement home, the weekly community meetings in the community center, the annual meeting of the sports club: The mayor never went without his pig, he carried it to the last corner of his 8,000-inhabitant village, miles. His appeal to all citizens of the Commune was: If we all fold, then Algermissen is soon out of debt.
And his citizens paid. Ten thousand euros he collected in six months from the inhabitants - a handsome amount. With the donation, which was supplemented by a substantial subsidy from the community budget, it was finally able to settle the last debts of the village. "That we did that as a community was just great."
Lange accompanied the piggy bank Wolfgang Moegerle, now it is on his desk. © Vaness Materla for TIME ONLINE
For decades, Algermissen was deeply involved in the muck - just like thousands of smaller and larger cities and communities throughout Germany. In fact, there is a deep gap between the municipalities, which are also bursting with tax revenues thanks to financially strong companies, and the poor communities - whether historical or location - which are struggling with high debts and are therefore trapped: because those who are in debt are missing Means to make the location so attractive that companies and young people and families want to settle there. A vicious circle.
So great are the differences in living conditions within Germany that Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) had specially created a commission, which should seek ways to compensate for them. So far, however, the results have remained in the balance. Even in the face of the current economic downturn, economists are calling for targeted relief to the heavily indebted municipalities. "The municipalities provide a large part of the infrastructure in Germany, but can often no longer meet these expenses due to high debts," criticized Claus Michelsen, head of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin).
Wolfgang Moegerle could not and did not want to wait for federal assistance. Eight million D-marks of debt weighed on Algermissen when he took office as mayor. Compared to other municipalities such as the sixty kilometers away Schladen-Werla, which must operate with a mountain of about 19 million euros debt, this is still manageable. "We turned every penny three times, but we still could not afford a swimming pool or expensive refurbishment." Moegerle did not want to accept that - and started his appeal for donations. It would have been five euros per capita, some gave nothing, some gave several times. Six months later, the city's per capita debt was back at zero.
So does it work that a highly indebted municipality can return to the black on its own? This is usually an almost hopeless endeavor, according to experts such as René Geißler, who is researching at the Bertelsmann Stiftung on financing municipalities. "Most municipalities depend on the help of the land." The encouragement was all the greater when Minister Seehofer signaled to his commission when presenting the results that the Confederation might be able to contribute to the elimination of the old debts of the municipalities.
But does the example of Algermissen show that self help is possible even without help?
Algermissen lies in the bacon belt of Hildesheim, here the world is still in order. Rusty cobbled streets, single-family houses made of brick, the front gardens lovingly planted and the lawn trimmed. Greetings on the street, most of the residents have known each other for decades. Hollywood star Diane Kruger grew up here, as did actor Bruno Eyron. The village exudes the charm of a holiday resort - it would be on the Baltic Sea, it would probably be a tourist magnet. But the citizens in Algermissen rather identify with the black zero. Being debt-free is part of the community's image, says Mayor Moegerle, who makes his people proud.