EDITORIAL COMMENT: Councils must be humane in debt collection
The Government has just announced that people who owe local authorities money in unpaid bills must honour their obligations or risk any legitimate action councils might take to enforce payment.
It is estimated that councils across the country are owed $1 billion in unpaid bills by residents, Government, industry and commerce. This is a huge sum of money that will contribute to better service delivery if residents and other debtors pay up.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Local Government, Public Works and National Housing Mr George Magosvongwe said:
“There is a relationship between the ratepayer and local authorities. The obligation of a local authority is to provide a service, to create democratic environment where people express themselves freely and to ensure that people live practical lives that are effective and amount to an improved standard at any given stage in any given year.
“The legal processes for collection are processes that have got to be legitimate, and legitimate processes stay within the law. The issue of debt collectors engaged by local authorities: they are part of the legal processes. They have got to be done correctly and we are saying, to avoid the debt collector issue as it is being raised by residents, let us pay up on our bills.
“We have to commit ourselves to paying for the services that we demand. In any case, we have families that we must look after and those families require the services of which we must pay. It may be that we are talking about economics and we are saying things are difficult, but your life is not as difficult as you say it is; if you are alive, you have to find a way of living your life. So residents must pay because what they expect as a service is paid for. There is a cost centre to every service which must be serviced by the residents.”
Most councils are struggling to offer services as expected because of lack of resources.
Harare, for example, is pumping water contaminated with human waste to people’s homes because it lacks money to buy water treatment chemicals and expand its capacity to deliver potable water. The capital is collecting at most $13 million monthly yet its target is $24 million.
Other councils are failing to build and rehabilitate roads under their jurisdictions, the same for street lighting. These failures are partly because councils lack enough money as they are owed much money by rate payers.
With the Government encouraging residents to pay up, we foresee a flurry of activity as councils implement sterner debt collection strategies. We expect to see debt collectors being unleashed on residents, property being seized and the like.
We don’t encourage residents to ignore paying their bills to councils but many of them are failing as a result of the prevailing economic challenges that are making it impossible for them to stretch their meagre budgets to cover everything that must be covered. Many are struggling, even failing to pay school fees for their children so a good number of kids are in and out of school. Many are also failing to pay medical bills, so a good number of people are suffering in their homes.
In view of this, we expect local authorities to be more considerate in their debt collection strategies, recognising that no sane resident wants to play a cat and mouse game with debt collectors.
We are encouraged by the stance taken by a number of councils, including Bulawayo City Council which on Wednesday issued a statement encouraging residents who are indebted to it to approach council officials and work out flexible debt payment measures.
Council proposed to enter into arrangements with interested consumers under which it parks the overdue debt and encourages payment of all current charges and installments towards the parked debt over an agreed period of time. Consumers will be expected to commit to pay their current bills plus a portion of the arrears. All who commit to this and honour them will not have their water supply disconnected or debt recovery measures applied.
This is a good initiative which is humane. We encourage all local authorities countrywide to do likewise, if they didn’t have similar strategies already.
We also encourage our people in Bulawayo to take this offer up. It is flexible, ensures that they have water running out of their taps and will free them from the fear of being door-stepped by a debt collector or the messenger of court.