12 December 2012

Zimbabwe: Attaching Masvingo Council Property Irresponsible

Photo: IRIN
File photo: Raw sewage flowing


The actions of the Zimbabwe Urban Council Workers Union in attaching fire tenders, ambulances, refuse collection trucks and computer servers in Masvingo is totally irresponsible and quite the wrong reaction to the inability or refusal of Masvingo City Council to pay its staff.

We agree that the union needs to put pressure, and perhaps a lot of pressure, on the city council to honour its debts or at least come to an arrangement over how it will pay what it owes its own staff.

But there are better ways of applying heavy pressure that do not put the city's residents at risk and remove from the council the only way it can claw back enough income to meet the debts.

In similar circumstances in other organisations in the past, for example, unions have attached the vehicles used by senior staff. Taking away the managing director's company car, in this case the equivalent would be attaching the mayoral car and town clerk's car, has given a wake-up call by seriously inconveniencing those responsible for setting payment priorities.

This sort of action applies just as much pressure and would do so in Masvingo without bringing essential municipal services to a halt and putting the entire population of the city at risk of death by fire, accident or disease.

The action of the union can only be described as totally unreasonable.

All councils in Zimbabwe have been hit by non-payment of rates and charges by far too many residents, and bad management has simply aggravated this.

But as we have said before councils seizing property, and now unions doing the same, is not effective or useful. The sums realised can only be a tiny fraction of what is owed. If the union goes ahead and auctions the seized property how much will it get?

There is no real market for well-used fire engines and who wants to buy a badly-maintained garbage truck? Second-hand computer servers are a drug on the market; no one wants them.

This is why we have argued before that councils need to attach income of defaulting ratepayers, not their property, and in the present Masvingo mess the union should perhaps have got court orders making payment of owed salaries a first charge on future income, or a considerable percentage of future income.

If this requires legal changes then the relevant ministry should push for this.

The concept of attaching income is not new. Many personal debts are settled with garnishee orders by the courts. Those who default on maintenance payments, for example, do not lose their furniture but find their paycheque is diminished by what a civil magistrate thinks is a fair sum. The same system can be extended to most other debts.

The present mess probably needs intervention by the Ministry of Local Government, Rural and Urban Development.

A short-term solution that keeps the city council running while starting to pay back salaries in a reasonable time should be attainable.

But the ministry needs to go further and help councils find a permanent solution to their perennial woes, one that involves ratepayers paying rather than taxpayers bailing out councils.

All councils produce budgets, which have to be approved, or at least not vetoed, by the ministry. Somewhere along the line these have to be turned from paper into real accounts with projected revenue actually collected and potential spending kept within approved limits.

The ministry has never allowed councils to borrow for running or staff costs, and right now there is no council in Zimbabwe with the credit rating to borrow anything.

Masvingo is not the only council with debt problems, although it seems to be the worst of the urban councils at least.

When a council gets into this sort of mess the ministry is justified in finding out what is going on and then seeking workable solutions.

But as a first priority the ministry has to get the council's emergency and essential services back in operation and the union has to realise that its dramatic gesture serves no purpose whatsoever and will only alienate those who suffer, in this case the entire population of Zimbabwe's oldest town and sixth city.

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