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Councils dig in as residents cry foul

by Staff reporter
22 May 2022 at 08:28hrs | Views
NAOMI Chimbganda is still agonising over last month's council bill, which puts her debt at a staggering $1,8 million.

The widow now has sleepless nights over how she will settle it, considering competing needs for her modest salary.

But what worries Chimbganda most is trying to figure out how the bill could have ballooned to such a ridiculous level as she religiously pays her monthly bills on time.

"I got the shock of my life because I have never skipped paying my bills. I make it a policy to visit council offices every month and pay in full whatever they say I owe them. Before this shocking bill, their office had indicated that I had paid $47 000 in advance," narrated Chimbganda as she fought back tears.

"Council is saying I was being undercharged from January 2020 to date, thus the bill has since been backdated to recoup the outstanding difference that was accrued over the years. But is it my fault that they have issues with their billing system?" she queried.

Kambuzuma's Kenias Mugadzaweta also feels hard done after receiving a bill that is close to a million dollars.

"I have never defaulted payment. Even when I did not receive the statement, I made an effort to visit their office and pay my dues. However, I am surprised that they are now saying I owe them close to a million dollars as a result of estimated differences and changing rates.

"This is unfair to say the least. It seems like I am being punished for being a devoted ratepayer. I know of colleagues that are not paying anything yet they have not been affected," he fumed.

Macheke residents in Mashonaland East Province are equally having sleepless nights.

"I recently got a $145 000 council bill, which I was told was backdated to 2017. Where is this coming from and how am I supposed to raise the money?" argued one pensioner who only identified himself as Tawengwa.

Much to their chagrin, residents are being forced to pay steep charges for poor or non-existent services.

The Central Business District (CBD) has become an eyesore.

Mountains of uncollected refuse and burst water pipes have become permanent features at Copacabana terminus and other parts of town.

The situation is the same in various residential areas.

In some parts of Harare, residents have become used to living without tap water.

Broken sewers are not being repaired on time, and, in worst cases, they are never attended to.

To prevent disease outbreaks like cholera and typhoid, residents end up seeking services of private plumbers.

Yet ratepayers are paying an arm and a leg to City of Harare.

Council, however, claims it has not been collecting sufficient funds as most ratepayers are defaulting, hence poor service delivery.

Currently, it generates at least $25 million from about 300 000 households, which is below the targeted $40 million.

It further claims that more than 100 000 households that are not on their books are receiving treated water and other council services without paying even a single penny.

Some of the houses were built on land that was illegally parcelled out by the local authority while others are sprouting informal settlements, especially in the peri-urban suburbs.

"Most of council's challenges emanate from unpaid bills and the issue dates back to five years. While some residents have been paying ‘meagre' amounts, some have not been doing so completely," said Harare Acting Mayor Councillor Stewart Mutizwa.

The outstanding bills, he said, have in turn accrued interests and resultantly ballooned into huge debts.

Most residents fear they are going to lose properties for failing to settle "abnormally high" bills.

The lowest bill seen by The Sunday Mail Society for a single household was $200 000, which was backdated to 2019.

Government last year launched a national regularisation programme that would help formalise informal settlements.

"We are working round the clock to ensure that all the areas that have been regularised are entered into our billing system for them to receive bills. A team dedicated for that purpose is being set up," added Cllr Mutizwa.

Harare Residents Trust executive director Precious Shumba said it is unfortunate that compliant ratepayers are being punished because of the defiant ones.

He also accused local authorities of ineptitude.

"Why should they let bills balloon until it gets to such a situation and yet they have the power to act at the shortest possible time?" he quizzed.

"We used to have a system whereby houses would be repossessed if one did not pay their bills and it worked well to keep residents on guard, but when council started neglecting their responsibilities, ratepayers felt not obliged to pay the bills.

"The current bills are steep and most people cannot afford to clear them in a short space of time. There is need for council and residents to meet and come up with a workable solution."

Experts argue the current predicament is compounded by councils' poor billing system.

Richard Phiri, the secretary-general of the Bindura Business Community Trust, said Bindura residents were at odds with their local authority.

"The residents are being billed for water even when the taps have since gone dry. In 2021, we were shocked to be presented with bills that indicated a 400 percent increase. Some residents refused to pay and others are not paying up to now. Worryingly, most of the bills are estimates," Phiri said.

Residents, he added, are also being made to fork out huge amounts of money which council ostensibly claims is for "street lighting and to acquire fire tenders".

However, the fire tenders are yet to be acquired and the street lights still to be delivered despite.

Shalvar Chikomba, the national chairperson of the Zimbabwe National Organisation of Associations of Residents Trusts, an organisation which represents the interests of residents trusts across the country, is concerned.

"The billing systems of most, if not all, councils are in shambles. We are having situations in which residents are presented with unjustifiably inflated bills," Chikomba said.

Town Planning expert Dr Percy Toriro argues billing should be accurate and that changes in rates should be communicated in advance.

"Billing must be regular, timely and reliable to avoid inconveniencing residents. Bill payment requires reminders because there are competing demands for residents' incomes therefore council should send bills every month," he said.

"In the current situation, residents should approach the council, verify their bills and agree on payment plans to create a win-win situation."

A Government official, who elected to remain anonymous, said local authorities have since been given an ultimatum to put their houses in order.

"A chunk of their revenue comes from rates which is why they are trying to push residents to pay huge sums. However, local authorities have been directed to come up with effective billing systems and stop punishing every ratepayer for their inconsistencies and insolent behaviour by others," said the official.

Last year, Harare residents engaged in a feud with HCC after the council's presentation of a $41,8 million budget for 2022, which experts say is largely funded by rates.

In the budget, the council outlined water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), public safety and security as their focus areas.  HCC also proposed and effected new rates across board.

However, service delivery continues to deteriorate.

Source - The Sunday Mail
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