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Interview with Mayor Katja Dörner: The Cityring in Bonn will soon be re-closed

Interview with Mayor Katja Dörner : The Cityring in Bonn will soon be re-closed

Katja Dörner has been in office as Bonn’s mayor for 100 days. In an interview with GA, she takes stock of the situation and announces swift measures for a change in transport policy. She plans to hire more staff for the projects.

After 100 days in office, Bonn's mayor Katja Dörner (Green Party) draws her first conclusions. She is confident that the city will not increase taxes despite the pandemic and the major projects that the new council majority wants to tackle. Dörner wants to “step on the gas” when it comes to changing the transport in the city. She spoke to An­dre­as Bau­mann and Li­sa In­hof­fen.

The first 100 days characterised by the pandemic makes your work even more difficult. There are serious corona outbreaks in two homes for the elderly. Why is the city so reluctant to provide information about these cases and in some cases, such as the home in Beuel, only passes on information when requested by the General-Anzeiger?

Katja Dörner: We are in a dilemma. On the one hand, there is the legitimate public interest to know where outbreaks of corona infections have occurred. On the other hand, we have a duty of care towards the institutions concerned. Especially when it comes to institutions for the elderly, and of course also to the elderly people themselves. From my point of view, this has to be weighed up carefully. When the managers of the homes tell us about the kind of feedback they sometimes receive from citizens, ranging from accusations to threats, then the ambivalence surrounding our decisions on how to deal with providing information becomes clear. That is why we have so far been rather restrictive in giving out the names of the institutions, knowing that on the other hand there is also public interest in this.

Transparency also creates trust among people on the outside. Now there have also been infections in Bonn with the British mutant coronavirus. Again, we only found out about this when we asked. Why doesn't the city go public with this information on its own initiative?

Dörner: We provide information very promptly. And processing a case always takes priority over passing on information. I cannot blame the health department for not passing this information on to our press office the moment it became known. The staff at the health department are absolutely at their capacity limits, so it can take a few hours before the press office is informed. When the information was available, we forwarded it directly to the GA, but we would also have reported it without your request.

Shouldn't the health department be better staffed so that such important information can be communicated more quickly? We asked about this on Monday, but only received the information on Tuesday.

Dörner: We have already increased staff numbers in the health department. The main focus here was on following-up the infection chains. So far, we have always provided very transparent and timely information about corona infection cases. I also make videos in which I address the public with up-to-date information in order to reach the diverse sections of the population in Bonn. If, as in your specific case, the information is provided late in your opinion, I don't think anyone can be blamed.

Which measures has the corona crisis team decided to take to deal with the virus mutant in Bonn?

Dörner: We are continuing to focus on strict compliance with the hygiene measures and we look closely at each individual case. We are recording exactly where the mutated coronaviruses are now appearing, are they in community facilities or private households? We monitor this very closely in the crisis team and can react quickly.

Against this backdrop, is it right to reopen nurseries whilst the schools remain closed?

Dörner: This is a difficult decision, but I have not tried to hide my opinion that we need clearer rules for nurseries as well. I would have preferred a regulation like the one we had in spring with actual emergency childcare. I still receive reports from parents that they would rather not bring their children to the nursery, but that their employers are putting pressure on them not to use the additional sick days because the nurseries are open. We now have an average of 40 per cent of nursery children in the facilities, in some nurseries even significantly more. We didn't have this in the spring, and it is clearly too many.

What is your impression after the first 100 days – how efficient is the Bonn city administration?

Dörner: First of all, I am pleased that I have been verywell received by the city administration, which is perhaps not a given for a Green mayor. I am very grateful for that. The individual offices are well positioned, but there is still a lack of cooperation in some offices. With a view to the larger projects we are planning, we also need to better connect the departments. To this end, we have launched a strategy process to see how we can position ourselves even better.

Speaking of large projects: Of course, a sufficient number of staff are needed to implement them. How many additional positions are to be created and for which tasks?

Dörner: We will have to create additional positions. We now want to find out what is possible in the budget discussions and then decide. Above all, we will need additional staff to implement the transport changes in Bonn. This also applies to housing construction. If you want to have a well-functioning public administration, to further expand all-day schooling, to further advance the digitalisation of the administration and especially of the schools, then this cannot be done with the available funds. We will openly communicate this to the city community. The municipality (Kommune) is the place where people have direct contact with administrative action. For this, the administration must be well positioned so that people can have a positive perception.

How many additional positions are required, do you think?

Dörner: I estimate that there will be less than 100 additional positions over and above those already planned and financed in the current budget.

How and where do you plan to compensate for this additional expenditure?

Dörner: In view of the major challenges we face, such as the digitalisation of schools, we will not be able to compensate for the additional expenditure so quickly. But I hope that we will get a dividend from digitalisation. By this I mean that we have to invest now to be able to reap the rewards later.

The coalition agreement of the new council majority also bears your signature. It is very ambitious. What reactions - negative and positive - have you received so far from the citizens?

Dörner: I have received a lot of positive feedback so far about the transport changes, for example, which is one of the core topics of the agreement. Yes, concerns have also been expressed. That didn’t surprise me. After all, transport policy has been hotly debated for years. It will now be important to communicate these projects well and to involve the citizens.

But that sounds like a long process…

Dörner: No, because we have no time to lose. The change in transport policy is a central lever in the municipality to achieve greater climate protection. We have to step on the gas with making changes to transport. We will now start with individual projects. The council already approved three additional protected bike lines in December. We have also initiated concrete measures for the 30 km/h speed limit. As you can see, we are ready, willing and able to get things moving quickly.

The Chamber of Industry and Commerce (IHK), the retail trade and the local association of craftsmen all want to have a say in the issue of transport. How will you take these interests into account?

Dörner: I am of course in discussion with these institutions too. When it comes to reducing car traffic, we are primarily concerned with through traffic, which we want to minimise especially in residential areas. To this end, we will now look at the individual districts and, as described in the coalition agreement, we will talk to the residents about the measures, for example about one-way street regulations, bollard regulations and so on. A major concern of the retail association was that it would no longer be possible to access the car parks in the city centre. However, this will still be possible.

When will we see the first results? For example, the announced renewed closure of the Cityring - when will that be implemented?

Dörner: I can't give you a specific date now. It is clear that the Cityring will soon be closed. This will also be important in view of redesigning the central bus station. This is an important project that we do not want to put off.

Does that mean you will put the bill for closing the Cityring on the table in the spring?

Dörner: I am in consultation with the council groups on how to do it, but the bill will definitely come soon.

When will there be more environmental lanes in Bonn?

Dörner: The city council has not yet decided on this. For the time being, we have concentrated on the three protected bike lanes, and I assume that concrete proposals will be made this month and that we will implement them promptly.

Where would you like to see the first environmental lane?

Dörner: We will continue with Hermann-Wandersleb-Ring.

And what about Berta-von-Suttner-Platz and Oxfordstraße?

Dörner: Overall, we will discuss the issue of the Rhine embankment and the opening of the city to the Rhine embankment, also in connection with state funding. I would see the question of Suttnerplatz and Oxfordstraße in this context. At this point in time, however, I cannot give you a conclusive answer.

How high will the proportion of parking space management be in the city when your term of office ends in 2025?

Dörner: I envision a comprehensive parking management system in Bonn. I believe that this is also a question of transparency and fairness. But it will certainly be focused on the hubs and not affect every corner of the city. Please forgive me that after 100 days in office, I cannot say to 150 percent what Bonn will look like in five years.

You want to invest 25 million euros a year on a climate package. Money is tight in the budget, so how will that work?

Dörner: We are only now entering the budget discussions, where we will of course look very closely at where savings can be made. But from my point of view, it is absolutely clear that we have to invest in climate protection and mobilise everything possible. I am sure that in ten or even five years' time, the people of this city will not ask 'Why did you save the budget?', but they will ask whether we really did everything possible to protect the climate. That is the challenge we have to face. That is why we will invest in climate protection. And also in other key areas for the future, such as publicly subsidised housing. We promised this during the election campaign, and now of course we want to deliver. I see a lot of untapped potential in the state and federal funding programmes for climate protection and housing construction. Many of these funding programmes require a certain contribution, sometimes ten percent, sometimes 15 percent. But it is not uncommon for the city to be unable or unwilling to provide its own share of the funds. That is why we are creating a budget for our own contribution for the first time.

Do you have a specific example of which programmes this could be?

Dörner: For example, the Smart City programme for digitalisation. We have set up an overarching project group so that we can apply with a convincing concept. This would solve many financial problems with regard to digitalisation, both for the city administration itself and beyond into the city.

It is said that in the past, only one person within the administration dealt with these programmes. Should there be a separate department for this task?

Dörner: It is not just one person, but a small working unit. In the budget discussions we will clarify how many people we need to be able to really bring this forward effectively.

The Stadtwerke are already heading for a deficit because they have to finance new trains. So will the municipality have to pay an annual deficit compensation to SWB like in the past?

Dörner: Above all, we have to hold discussions with the federal government and the state about how local public transport can be financed in the future. Things cannot go on as before, in my opinion. If we want public transport to be expanded, if we want more people to use it, then the municipalities cannot do it alone, given their financial resources. The city has already refrained from cashing in the dividends from the Stadtwerke in recent years. I don’t imagine that this will change significantly in the next few years.

How realistic is the coalition's announcement that it wants to reduce VRS ticket prices?

Dörner: It won't fail due to a lack of political will. The majorities in the VRS and VRR committees have changed. The need to reduce ticket prices to make public transport attractive is, I believe, widely recognised. That's why I think the financial resources are a more limiting factor than the political will. In the committees, we now have to discuss what can be done in the next few years.

The VRS has already said that ticket prices could be lowered. But then the municipalities who are part of the association would have to spend more money on public transport.

Dörner: As I said, we will have to discuss this with the committee representatives.

Do you rule out an increase in business or property taxes during your term of office?

Dörner: I consider a tax increase in corona times to be absolutely unacceptable. I assume that, in view of the after-effects of this pandemic, we will not talk about such measures in the next few years either, but the long-term financial consequences of the pandemic cannot yet be foreseen as a whole.

Municipal plots of land are only to be allocated for housing on a ground leasehold basis. Will investors even go along with that?

Dörner: Bonn is an extremely attractive place to invest. Besides, we have lowered the interest on ground rent from four to one percent. I'm not worried about that.

Why are you going down this path?

Dörner: The motive behind it is that as a city, we want to keep our land as our property. This is our common urban property and a question of sustainability. It also gives us the opportunity, which we would otherwise not have, to influence the type of development. The focus is on affordable housing, for example through cooperative building.

How do you intend to put the urban development company, which has yet to be founded, in a position to pay the expensive land prices in Bonn?