Government departments in Bulawayo usually exhaust their budgets within the first quarter of the year, that is why they are failing to pay their bills to the Bulawayo City Council, executive mayor Japhet Ndabeni-Ncube said.
He was commenting on complaints last week by several councillors who had expressed dismay at the mounting government debt to the council. Government departments owed the council nearly $86 billion at the end of September last year.
Ald Matson Hlalo said the government should take the lead in paying its debts so that the council could then put pressure on residents.
Residents owed the council $270.3 billion with the total debt to council standing at a staggering $396.5 billion.
The council earned revenue of only $494.7 billion up to September and spent $363.9 billion during the same period.
Hlalo said looking at the figures provided by the city treasurer, there was no attempt whatsoever by the government to reduce its debt. The figures showed that government debt had been increasing steadily from just over $30 billion in May to nearly $45 billion in June, $50 billion in July and on to $75 billion in August.
Ald Charles Mpofu suggested that the council should use the urban council’s association to put pressure on the government because the government was not taking them seriously.
“We take ourselves to be part of government but the government has no respect for us at all. Instead, they lambaste us for not providing services, when they are not paying for the same services,” he said.
The government has so far dismissed three executive mayors for alleged mismanagement. First to go was the mayor of Harare Elias Mudzuri. He was followed by the mayor of Mutare Misheck Kagurabadza and only last month the mayor of Chitungwiza Misheck Shoko.
All three were members of the Movement for Democratic Change and they have been replaced by commissions that are believed to be pro-ZANU-PF. The mayor of Bulawayo is also MDC.
Ndabeni-Ncube said the government was fully aware of its mounting debt because the Minister of Local Government, Ignatius Chombo, was briefed about the situation every month.
He said at one stage the central bank had suggested that it pay the debt and then recover its money from the government ministries concerned.
“They are aware of the debt and they are extremely embarrassed about it. I am made to understand, however, that the departments run out of funds in the first three months of the financial year and they cannot pay us for the rest of the year. But the government seems to be listening because the issue is very embarrassing to them,” the mayor said.
In an earlier debate Clr Phil Lamola had suggested that the council should pursue promises made by Finance Minister Herbert Murerwa in his 2006 budget. Murerwa said the government would pay its debts directly to service providers and local authorities.
The minister complained that though budgetary provisions had been made under various ministries’ votes, service providers including parastatals and local authorities were owed huge sums of money for services rendered.
“This is not only poor financial management on the part of accounting officers but this also compromises the viability of suppliers,” Murerwa said.
“In line with government’s commitment to pay what it owes,” he went on, ” I am proposing to set aside resources to settle these debts. …..Payments will be made directly to suppliers once the amount of debt has been reconciled and confirmed by the debtor ministry.”
Murerwa’s budget has just been approved but it is not clear when his plan would be put into action as the debt continues to mount.
A local daily this week reported that the provincial governor for Bulawayo Metropolitan Province, Cain Mathema, had stepped in to ensure that the council recovered its debt. Council spokesman Pathisa Nyathi, however, said there was nothing new to the story.
Though the paper had made it look like this was a recent statement, made after the full council meeting of Wednesday last week when the councillors complained about the mounting debt, the paper had actually picked it up from council minutes which were referring to correspondence in November.
The council’s Finance and Development Committee had noted, at its meeting on 3 October, concern about the mounting government debt which stood at $88.2 billion.
In his response, the acting provincial administrator for Bulawayo, wrote to the council on 11 November, merely stating that he had written to the affected government departments “reminding them abut the need to clear their arrears”.
Posted-12 January 2006