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Red Tape in Italy Sticks Like Glue

Maze of rules, regulations leaves many people in a daze

A year ago, the 25,000 people who live in this Sicilian town awoke to discover that their 300-year-old cathedral had collapsed in the middle of the night.

Today, St. Nicol is still a heap of ruins behind an intact faade, and the people of Noto are asking why little has been done about it.

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But months of bureaucratic inactivity have turned Noto's imploded cathedral - and the six different offices haggling over its reconstruction - into a classic example of Italy's perceived inability to untangle itself from a bureaucracy that strangles economic growth and saps investment.

The Roman Catholic Church, which actually owns Noto's cathedral, has had to deal with handling constant intrusions into its offices and buildings by legions of architects, engineers, magistrates, consultants, and assistants. Of all the intrusions, the least welcome is by the Sovrintendenza dei Beni Culturali, the agency in charge of the province's artistic heritage.

At one point, workers under orders from the Sovrintendenza marched into what was left of the edifice and flooded one of the underground crypts with concrete.

The church accused the Sovrintendenza of behaving as if it owned the place, but the Sovrintendenza claimed that Noto's prefect - who had been put in charge of all urgent works - had been duly informed. According to one of the local papers, the prefect denied knowing anything about it.

"All of this is typical of a situation where no one is in charge," says Roberto De Benedictis, an engineer involved in the cathedral's restoration. "What's even worse is the overlapping of authority, where you have one person making a decision somebody else will almost inevitably block."

According to Paolo Giacomelli, a consultant with the Societ per l'Imprenditorialit Giovanile (IG), a firm that finances young entrepreneurs mostly from Italy's south, there have been cases where people have just given up on their businesses after months of futile struggle with bureaucratic red tape.

"Take this group of kids from Palermo [Sicily]," he says. "They wanted to sell containers out of their hometown. They fought for two whole years to get a scrap of land in one of the industrial areas down there. It was such a bureaucratic nightmare that they gave up. They are now working out of Frosinone, near Rome."

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"What can I say?" Mr. Giacomelli adds. "Our bureaucracy is everything but user- or customer-friendly. In fact, it doesn't envision users at all."

IG was created by a 1986 law that recognized the need to inject money in depressed areas, largely in the south. "In less than 10 years, IG has helped jump-start 1,000 small businesses generating more than $900 million in revenues," says Franco Peduto, whose dairy farm was financed by IG. It has also created 30,000 desperately needed jobs" in areas where unemployment rates soar above 20 percent.

It is precisely in one of these areas that Noto stands. This is a place where it took 40 days for a letter sent from the town hall to cover the few hundred yards to the office of Sovrintendenza dei Beni Culturali.

But the bureaucracy's latitudes, Giacomelli says, bear no relation to terrestrial ones. "It can take six months for a letter to make it around the corner. The number of administrative stamps cluttered on any given envelope passed from one office to the other can be truly impressive," he adds.

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