By Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante

BARI, Italy - Mayors in Italy's poor south should be relishing the prospect of billions of euros from the European Union's pandemic recovery fund, but a lack of project management expertise could mean they are unable to take full advantage of the scheme.

Italy hopes to receive 191.5 billion euros ($215.5 billion) in grants and loans from the 750-billion-euro kitty over five years, the largest beneficiary among the 27 EU states.

Focused on green transition, digitalisation, education and sustainable infrastructure, the recovery and resilience fund could help modernise the Italian economy via thousands of projects, especially in the less developed south.

"This represents a unique, extraordinary opportunity for us," Antonio Decaro, mayor of Bari in Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot, told a government roadshow promoting the scheme.

"But in order not to lose this chance, we need qualified people quickly to get these projects going."

Other mayors said they also lacked staff qualified to draw up, manage and monitor projects they want to advance.

Leoluca Orlando, who runs Sicily's main city Palermo, said he had just one technical manager authorised to sign off on EU project bids, while Gaetano Manfredi, the mayor of the biggest city in the south, Naples, said he had no technical managers.

"It is an absurd situation," Orlando told Reuters.

The south accounts for just over 30% of Italy's population and little more than 20% of national economic output, and the gap with the centre and north is growing. To help it catch up, it is due to receive 40% of Italy's EU funds.

Years of budget austerity following the 2008 financial crisis have taken a particularly heavy toll on already indebted southern administrations, forcing them to slash staff.

According to a Bank of Italy study, the number of public sector workers in the south fell by 27.8% in 2008-2018 against a 18.5%...

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