Clawing their way back

2019-06-07 15:00
uMngeni Mayor Sizwe Sokhela is confident that uMngeni is on a path to financial stability. PHOTO: NOKUTHULA NTULI

uMngeni Mayor Sizwe Sokhela is confident that uMngeni is on a path to financial stability. PHOTO: NOKUTHULA NTULI

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uMngeni Municipality is concentrating its efforts on combating electricity theft and poor revenue collection after these pushed the municipality to the brink of financial collapse last year. 

In an exclusive interview with The Witness, the mayor of uMngeni, Sizwe Sokhela, said the cost containment measures and revenue enhancement strategies that have been introduced set the municipality on a path to financial stability.

Some of the budget cuts that were approved by council include limiting the use of telephones to just R600 per month per office. Sokhela said managers are encouraged to use their cellphone allowance so their office limit is R200.

“You are automatically cut off as soon as you reach the limit and if you want a further allowance you have to write a report motivating why you need it.

“The reason we did this is because telephone calls were one of the areas in which we were spending a lot as the municipality.”

Council also wants officials to take time off to make up for overtime worked, instead of getting financial compensation. As a result, the budget allocation for overtime has been reduced from 6,7 million to R5,2 million for 2019/20 financial year — which starts next month.

Sokhela is also running a campaign to educate communities about the need to protect public facilities in their areas. He said the vandalism of things like halls and sports centres is costing the municipality a lot of money in outsourced security. He said at one stage the annual bill was about R11 million but they are going to make drastic cuts to that by getting communities to start protecting their own infrastructure.

Sokhela said uMngeni is losing substantial income to those who refuse to pay for services. During the 2016/17 financial year, the municipality lost 75% of the electricity purchased from Eskom, which amounted to R73,4 million, which the auditor-general described as “unauthorised consumption, tampering and other technical losses”.

“We have, through the electricity unit, been conducting a meter audit and in the process disconnecting households and businesses that have been discovered to be illegally connected and effectively robbing the municipality of much-needed income.”

He said when they apply for power to uMngeni, the municipality will install technologically-advanced meters that enable the municipality to monitor consumption remotely and also detect any attempts of tempering.

“This is definitely yielding results as we are seeing an improvement in our revenue collection and we are also able to put something into our reserves because they had been depleted,” said Sokhela.

He said that year on year, uMngeni’s debtors’ book increased and council was forced to write off millions in bad debt but that is about to change.

While he sat in an interview with The Witness, the bid adjudication committee was in Hilton, deliberating on the tender for a debt-collection service provider as using lawyers has proved ineffective.

“In 2018, our books reflected that we were owed R117 million and this year we are owed R124 million. This can continue no longer as it stifles our resolve and capabilities to effect impactful service delivery.”

With regards to Hilton’s electricity woes, Sokhela said they are continuing engagements with Msunduzi to ensure that the challenges faced by the community are addressed. The Witness previously reported on ratepayers’ frustrations when the City left them in the dark, sometimes for days.

Sokhela said while the area of Hilton is geographically under uMngeni, it is Msunduzi that supplies it with electricity. He said uMngeni has voiced its views that they believe that their municipality should take over the electricity supply as the residents also paid their rates to them.

“The challenge comes when there is an interruption of supply, as people don’t go to Msunduzi, they come to our offices and ask us to sort it out because they are our ratepayers.”

Projects prioritised within a tight fiscal budget

The projected income for uMngeni Municipality for the 2019/20 financial year is R419,5 million and the expenditure budget is R419,4 million.

Some of the projects that have been prioritised include more than 300 new electricity connections, repairing potholes, installing public lighting, road upgrades, the construction of four community halls and a multi-million rand sport field project for Mpophomeni.

uMngeni is also resuscitating grant funding for community organisations such as the Howick uMngeni Community Tourism Organisation (Hucto), and the Zulu Mpophomeni Township Experience.

Sizwe Sokhela said that when the municipality pulled the grants last year, it was not because they did not value the projects, but because uMngeni was facing financial constraints.

He said an amount of R360 000 has been allocated to fund these organisations as a demonstration of the municipality’s commitment to contribute towards promoting industry in the Midlands.

“For the first time in our history, we’ve also allocated R150 000 to support emerging black farmers who are running agricultural projects in their communities,” Sokhela said.

'Service delivery is for all'

As someone who grew up on a farm and still lives there, Sizwe Sokhela is passionate about changing the lives of people living in farms around uMngeni.

He said many of them visit his office regularly to tell him about how they cannot access government services because of where they live. “The challenge is that some of the farmers don’t want the municipality to connect electricity and water to these dwellers’ homes. Even those who qualify for RDP housing cannot get them because we can’t build the houses on private land if the owners don’t want us to,” he said.

He said a sale agreement has been prepared for the municipality to acquire land that can accommodate people living on farms.

Due to the limited budget in the current financial year, Sokhela said only one 17-hectare farm has been identified for purchase for R2 million before the end of this month. In the 2019/20 financial year, council has approved the allocation of R5 million for further land acquisition. “The reason for the acquisition of farms is to formalise the farm settlements, which experience serious transgressions of human rights, including a lack basic services.”

The new settlements would also have amenities such as a community hall and sport facilities.

Sokhela said this project has been met with some resistance as some within uMngeni do not believe that it should be one of the municipality’s priorities. “We can’t serve one section of uMngeni while we ignore others. Their service delivery needs are just as important so we must put equal effort into addressing them,” he said.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  umngeni municipality

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