At the height of the lockdown in 2020 the Harare City Council ordered closed almost all of its offices in various locations and left only Rowan Martin to operate, receiving payments from residents.
Residents were encouraged to use plastic money and other electronic means of payments.
Nothwistanding that, revenue collection plunged by a staggering 36% as Council missed its target of $70 million.
The whole 2020 was a financial disaster for Council and 2021 was expected to bring respite.
However, January has already begun with another lockdown and with infection and mortality figures spiking, Covid now requires a new type of a resident if ever Councils are to survive.
What Comes First, Egg or Hen?
The proverbial Catch-22 situation around service delivery has been about what should come first, the service or the payment of rates by residents?
Residents have been adamant that Council has failed to deliver from the money it has got and they have no obligation to pay anymore.
In Norton its legislator Temba Mliswa has constantly angered Norton Town Council (NTC) officials with his argument that residents should stop paying rates until Council starts delivering.
“They have failed to be accountable on the money which they got and residents have no water, there is no collection of refuse and the state of the whole service delivery in Norton is very bad.
“Thus there is need for residents to boycott paying the rates until Council begins to show transparency and accountability in the use of the money which it has been collecting”.
“There has been so much misuse of funds and defective prioritisation with the acquisition of cars whilst we have no water system for residents”, he charges.
Another Kuwadzana 1 resident, Ashley Makonya, echoed the same sentiments.
“What is the point of paying for a non-existent service. We pay for water and there is no water. We pay for refuse collection and yet the bins are bot collected and we have piles of rubbish everywhere”, fumes Ashley Makonya from Kuwadzana 1.
Those inside Councils however dispute that notion.
Norton Ward 7 Councilor Douglas Chililo says residents are straining the system by not paying rates.
“Residents contribute to service delivery by paying rates but there are more than 50% of ratepayers who have not paid their rates since they were slashed during the RG Mugabe era.
“They don’t even know how bills are paid but are enjoying services at the expense of others. How on earth can one expect good service delivery after a decade of unpaid bills?, he queried.
The arguments are also disputed by Harare Mayor Jacob Mafume who says Council operates a cash accounting system which requires payments first before delivering.
The suspended Mayor says payments should come first and they have not been coming.
“The Council is the only one where people get service first and pay later. We use an arrears payments process and many residents do not understand that.
“They believe they are paying for what they are getting upfront. We give you a service first and you pay for it. That system is very difficult to sustain.
Mafume added that, “We have to pay for the services in order for the service to come. Which starts first is a debate which everyone is engaged in, but people must understand that in these days for the telephone you must pay first before using the airtime, for data you pay first before using airtime”.
In accounting, billing in arrears means that you bill customers after the job is complete. Instead of taking payment beforehand to cover expenses or other costs.
What this essentially means is that for any future service to come residents need to pay their rates because Council will already be in arrears from the previous month’s supply of services.
Third Party Involvement
The current checkmate scenario where Council is failing to deliver service, because it is broke and residents are also not paying, because they are not getting the service, likely requires the third party involvement of government.
Government has to provide a stimulus package to kick-start the provision of service by Councils otherwise the checkmate will go on.
Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube’s famous budget surplus could do well if used to fund struggling Councils which are buffeted by the multiple factors of an inflationary macro-economic environment.