DA pressure brings down eThekwini rates increase, but the budget still not good enough

Issued by Cllr. Nicole Graham – DA Ethekwini Caucus Leader
29 May 2020 in Press Statements

Note to Editors: The following is an extract of a speech delivered by ethekwini DA Caucus Leader Councillor Nicole Graham during a budget speech in eThekwini today.

As the DA, we honour those who have been on the frontlines of fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. Our thoughts and sympathies are with those who have lost loved ones and those who are fighting to regain their health.

The upside of today’s meeting is that hundreds of thousands of our community members can potentially see our meetings and how we work. We greet all those tuning in from home.

There has never been a more important time for us all to remember that we don’t come to Council to represent our socks and shoes- we are representatives of people who have put their faith and trust in us to represent their best interests where it matters most.

The people of eThekwini- who are facing unprecedented hardship and will continue to do so as the novel coronavirus and illogical government decision making cripple the economy- are the ones today’s meeting should be about.

Similarly, the very common tendency to think of municipal money as money that belongs to the politicians or the governing party of the municipality is one we need to put to bed for good. It comes from and belongs to the public, the ratepayers and the people of this city.

This is reinforced by section 153 of the Constitution, which says that budgets should be structured to give priority to the basic needs of the community.

This is crisis time, and this should be a budget that fully reflects that.

All projections and research show that this city’s economy and people are in deep trouble. Before the pandemic hit, Stats SA declared that eThekwini had the highest number of indigent residents of any South African metro. Our economy has been showing minimal growth for years.

Put simply, Durbanites were struggling before Covid-19 hit and things have only gotten worse.

We are now staring down the barrel of 42% unemployment, 327 000 job losses and an economic contraction of -6%, made worse by bad government decision making.

In April, only 56% of Durbanites could pay their municipal bills, slashing our income and cash flow. This indicates two things- that people are losing their income and that when our consumers can’t or don’t pay their bills, this municipality finds itself in hot water very quickly.

This should be a severe warning for the powers that be.

Over the years, this municipality has spent money recklessly. The eThekwini Metro (and its predecessor local councils) were known nationally as responsible municipalities that were good with money and had significant cash reserves.

Those days, unfortunately, are long gone.

The ANC wrecking ball has smashed through what once was, spending money on events, parties, bodyguards, chicken farms, legal fees for accused crooks, extensive overtime, vanity projects and huge political patronage networks. The record now shows that what wasn’t wasted was seemingly stolen.

When the sun was shining, we chopped to roof to pieces and now that it is raining, we are insignificant trouble.

This, colleagues are not the fault nor the problem of our ratepayers and consumers.

Speaking of them, the public participation summary in the final tabled budget is simply unacceptable. It briefly mentions that people objected to the tariff and rates increases but does not say how many people, explain the details or allow Councillors to read some of the objections. Our website- Durban Says No- has almost 6000 objections registered on it in two short days, so I imagine the volume of objections was massive.

What is the point of extensive public participation if you merely do what you were planning to do all along?

We note that the tariff and rates increases have come down slightly, undoubtedly as a result of pressure from the public and the opposition.

The rates average increase coming down to an average of 4.9% is slightly better, but the majority of our ratepayers are fed up because they don’t receive the services that they pay for in the first instance. Our rates base is not expanding, so the same people are expected to pay more and more.

The water and sanitation increases- down slightly but still at a whopping 9.5%- are sheer madness. Water outages have become the norm in many parts of the city, and the city is losing half of its billable water to theft or losses. Why should those who do pay, pay more for a system that is broken?

This thread runs throughout the budget- charge those who do pay or try to pay more and let those who don’t pay off scot-free. This is indicated in the decision to put up the hostel and rental housing tariffs by 10% when less than 30% of people do pay. It is surely more logical to collect more than to demand more from the same small pool of people.

It is only acceptable to put up tariffs if they are reasonable and if you can deliver a quality service. The DA doesn’t believe either is applicable here.

MFMA circular 99- which dealt with this budget in particular- clearly states

That there is a “need for municipalities to ensure that compensation demands are balanced with the broader needs of society. In this context, municipalities should start taking decisive action to address bloated organizational structures and above-inflation wage increases.”

It goes on to say, “Wage bill increases are crowding out spending on capital projects for future economic growth and impacts on service delivery.”

This was issued in March- before the scale of the pandemic hit us- but eThekwini have still been reluctant to clarify what it has done to reduce an exorbitant year on year staff cost increase of 9.5%.

Our letters to senior management and politicians- querying whether the municipality approached the bargaining council for an exemption or approached the unions to try and bring down costs- have not been replied to.

Whilst there are certainly some good municipal officials who work hard, that is frankly not the point. In the real world, ordinary people are losing their jobs, taking massive pay cuts are unemployed or are watching their businesses collapse.

Why should they have to fund a 4% increase for Councillors and a 6.25% increase, thirteenth cheques and performance bonuses for staff when they are battling? It is unfair and immoral.

This is a fight not with staff but for the sustainability of eThekwini and its capacity to continue as a going concern.

When this was queried on this morning’s EXCO, the message from the city’s management was that when it comes to staff matters, you “have to tread carefully”.

My message today- delivered on behalf of those who elected us- is simple: it is not the unions this city management should be scared of, it is our residents, consumers and ratepayers.

If they can’t or don’t pay, the ship sinks and the ship sinks very quickly.

Our advice to the city- tabled in April- was to get back to basics and re-work this budget to focus on the key priorities in a time of crisis- delivering quality basic services, looking after our municipal infrastructure, looking after the economy and saving jobs and protecting poor and vulnerable people.

This budget should have been completely re-worked, but it hasn’t been.

The priority should have been our residents, not our staff.

The tariffs should have been as low as possible so people can afford to keep their taps running and their lights on, but they aren’t.

It is simply not good enough.

For these reasons, and on behalf of our communities who put us here in the first place, the DA says no to this budget.