I was shocked to see R17-million written off for “indigent” debt during a recent Bitou Special Council meeting.
Bitou provides R36-million a year in indigent subsidies for water, electricity, and refuse for registered indigent households. This is funded from an approximately R100-million Equitable Share Grant from central government tax.
So, indigent debt should be minimal and individual amounts should be small. But Bitou’s council agenda lists thousands of individuals whose “indigent” debt has been written off.
Amounts vary from dozens as small as R0.01 (which one would expect to see), to a whopping R252,380 (name withheld). It appears that this person is a serial indigent, as the figures show a further two debts of R5,195 and R1,032 for him/her. (Or might it be three different persons?)
It is undeniable that it is uneconomical to chase insignificant debts - let’s be generous and say under R10,000. However, amounts like the above, especially when as high as R200,000 or more, require careful scrutiny when amounting to a very significant R17-million.
There are 11 owing more than R100,00; 33 more than R50,000; and 136 over R20,000. Included among these “indigents” is an amount of R4,698 for someone that sounds very much like one of our esteemed former mayors.
Judging by my own monthly municipal expenses of R2,000 it would take me 125 months or roughly 10 years of non-payment to run up a R250,000 debt.
I do not believe that poverty and indigence could be the sole, or even main, reason for this situation. Rather, it points to shockingly poor debtor control and management. Clearly these debts are allowed to run up over a long period to reach such large amounts.
What these figures and the wholesale write-off show very clearly is poor work by the officials in the first place, and secondly that our councillors are not paying sufficient attention to our financial management and are not holding the responsible officials to account for their poor performance.
Did any councillor study these figures carefully before voting for the write-off? Did any councillor query even one of the proposed write-offs and ask for more information?
Did any councillor query who was responsible for allowing the situation to get R17-million out of control? Has any councillor insisted that those responsible be held to account?
Does any councillor monitor the debtors on a monthly or quarterly basis and make the necessary noises to ensure better performance? Are the CFO and municipal manager happy with the performance of their staff?
Given that there is an under-collection of taxes in South Africa and that funding for municipalities from central government has been and will continue to be cut, this situation is unsustainable and needs urgent attention from Bitou’s councillors and senior officials.