THE customary long queues associated with the second half of the month have disappeared completely at Harare City Council’s Rowan Martin payment halls located on the western fringe of the capital’s central business district.The reason is not because the cashiers manning the counters have suddenly become more efficient or that the city council has increased the number of payment centres in the capital.
Things are now different.
Unlike in the past, residents are no longer flocking to the city council offices to pay their bills before the month ends.
The usually bustling payment halls teeming with stampeding ratepayers have been replaced by empty foyers and the occasional long-faced traffic offender making for a far flung counter on the right wing of the hall conveniently marked “Clamping Fees”.
“There is no work these days because very few people are coming to pay their water bills here,” said one cashier based at the city council’s Rowan Martin payment offices upon inquiry by the Financial Gazette.
The empty halls have meant that dozens of cashiers behind the counters at the payment offices have unlimited time to play games on their cellphones or computers during working hours.
A receptionist at the payment offices revealed that since July this year the majority of the people coming to make payments at the counters are motorists fined for various traffic offences and vendors arrested by the municipal police for operating illegally.
“There is a marked decrease in the number of residents coming to pay water bills,” the council official revealed.
As a result of the diminishing revenue base Harare mayor Bernard Manyenyeni said the city council is now bankrupt and failing to meet its financial obligations.
Critics blame the dwindling revenue inflows to local councils on a government directive to slash debts owed to local authorities by residents and ratepayers last June.
The City of Harare which was owed over US$400 million by ratepayers before the debt cancellation decree is now failing to pay its workers and struggling to raise US$3 million required to pay water purification chemicals every month.
The local authority’s officials say revenue collection has plummeted in the aftermath of the directive on debt relief as residents are now speculative and anticipating another debt relief decree from government.
Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo has defended his directive as a pro-poor policy meant to protect the struggling residents from local authorities that were pursuing an “unfettered disempowerment agenda by repossessing stands and houses from citizens who had outstanding bill”.
A dire situation is unravelling in Mutare and the council officials blame their worsening misfortunes on the cancellation of the US$30 million debt owed by rate payers.
Mutare mayor Tatenda Nhamarare said the eastern-border city is experiencing a serious shortage of refuse collection trucks with only three out of a possible ten trucks available to service the city.
This has negatively affected refuse collection in the eastern border town, which has also been struggling to pay its workers.
In Gwanda, the Zimbabwe National Water Authority disconnected water supplies to the local authority two weeks ago over an unpaid US$5 million debt, forcing residents to fetch untreated water from Mutshabezi River.
Gwanda town clerk, Gilbert Mlilo, said the local authority is failing to service its debts because it is broke.
The situation is worse in Chitungwiza, a dormitory town 30 km south of Harare.
The local authority, which cancelled debts worth US$40 million after the government directive has failed to pay its workers for the past ten months and there is no indication the situation is going to improve.
Chitungwiza Residents Trust, an association of residents and ratepayers, says parts of the dormitory town have gone for years without water and sewer services.
In a statement released on Monday in commemoration of World Toilet Day, the residents group said it was worried that a health crisis was looming in Chitungwiza where over 10 000 homes are not connected to the sewage or water reticulation system.
In such circumstances residents have resorted to digging shallow wells and the construction of pit latrines for use as toilets, according to the pressure group.
When this happens on a 200sqm stand the chances of the water table being polluted by sewage from the Blair toilets are very high exposing residents to cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases, the group said.
In the period July 2012 to June 2013 Chitungwiza Town Council’s health services department recorded 692 cases of typhoid with two deaths, a situation related to the poor sanitation services in the dormitory town.
More worrying, however, is the fact that there is no light at the end of the tunnel with regards to the dire financial straits besetting the local authorities as these councils say they do not have the capacity to turnaround their situations which have become somewhat of a vicious cycle.
Local authorities say they cannot deliver services because they are broke.
They blame their bankruptcy on the reluctance by residents to pay rates to the local authorities.
Yet residents associations say residents are reluctant to pay because local authorities are not delivering the services that they are paying for.
To buttress their arguments residents point to the non collection of refuse, dry taps, pot-hole infested roads and shambolic billing systems.
Combined Harare Residents Association chairperson Simbarashe Moyo also blamed the residents’ inability to pay rates on the failing economy and attendant liquidity crunch.
“Over 80 percent of our residents are unemployed so they just don’t have the money to pay rates and rentals. Where are they expected to get the money if they don’t earn any salary or wage at the end of each month? Even those who are working are failing t access their money from the banks at the end of the month,” said Moyo referring to the liquidity crunch that has buffeted the financial sector in recent months.
Moyo called upon government intervention saying the situation is now beyond the scope of Harare’s city fathers.
Former MP and Chitungwiza Residents Trust chairman, Marvellous Kumalo, believes that after the debt relief decree in favour of rate payers, central government has an obligation to rescue struggling local authorities.
Kumalo said his organisation is lobbying Parliament for the establishment of a Local Authorities Resuscitation Fund by central government through the finance ministry to bailout collapsing municipalities.
“Research has shown that all the 92 local authorities in Zimbabwe are technically insolvent. What it means is that from Mutare to Victoria Falls, from Plumtree to Kariba all local councils are bankrupt to the extent that they cannot meet their financial obligations,” said Kumalo.
“What is also clear is that without the intervention of central government things can only get worse because these local authorities have no capacity at all to recover from this financial comma,” Kumalo added.