Council budgets can be inclusive

Source: Council budgets can be inclusive | Sunday Mail (Local News)

PRESENTLY, a number of municipalities around the country are formulating their budgets for 2022. The process is commonly plagued with flaws, as residents accuse local authorities of leaving them out when crafting the financial plans. Last week, The Sunday Mail’s Rudo Mandiro spoke to the Zimbabwe National Organisation of Associations and Residents’ Trust (ZNOART) chairperson Mr Shepherd Shalvar Chikomba on how councils’ budget making processes can be more inclusive.

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RM: Please give us a brief overview of your organisation?

SC: ZNOART is a registered entity composed of associations and organisations representing the interests of residents in cities, towns and rural areas across Zimbabwe. We are non-political as we serve the interest of every citizen of our country. We are a group of residents who have come together to advocate for our rights to basic amenities such as water, refuge collection, electricity, housing, safer environment and fighting crime, to name but a few issues that affect communities every day. Our objective is to bring sanity and hold accountable municipalities and all service providers. We have members in all the country’s 10 provinces.

RM: How many members do you have?

SC: Our national membership is currently at over 20 000 residents and more than 60 affiliating associations and we are represented in all the 10 provinces of Zimbabwe. Our plan is to reach 200 000 members by mid-2022 because our interests and objectives pivot around the plight of residents.

We have an obligation to advocate for the restoration of their rights which, in more cases than not, are not observed as local authorities abrogate their mandates while focusing on non-priority matters which apparently are serving individual self-interests more than meeting the basic needs of the residents.

RM : When was your organisation formed and what interventions have you made so far?

SC : We were formed in 2019. We have been constantly touring residential areas around Zimbabwe when the need arises. We have also hosted Government officials and local authorities on our Programme called “ZNOART Official Engagements” which we conduct every Saturday on our social media groups. We have held clean-up campaigns around the country as we believe in environmental conservation.

We conduct outreach programmes every month in provinces undertaking extensive engagement and research pertaining to the welfare of residents. We also facilitate meetings between residents and their local authorities, or residents with Government officials or other service providers.

In 2020 we signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) partnering with them on the production of a TV programme “Liquid Soil”. The programme’s aim is to highlight the plight of residents across the country.

RM: Councils are currently processing their budgets for next year, how can this process be more inclusive to ensure that the voice of residents is heard?

SR: We have noted that due to Covid-19 and other factors, a good number of residents and ratepayers failed to attend council meetings and most recently, they are not being included in pre-budget meetings.

We believe that the budget process should not leave residents out. Residents should be part and parcel of the process at every stage. Residents’ participation will enhance the financial transparency of local authorities.

Residents should be able to critique council processes and participate in decision making which impacts service delivery.

What we have observed as ZNOART is that council figures being referenced in their budgets are far lower than what they are actually charging residents in reality. It is just a budget for window dressing. This is where we are stepping up to intervene and play an oversight role to pressure local authorities to do what is right.

RM: It appears that councils are not implementing the prescribed 70-30 threshold for service delivery and salaries respectively in formulating their budgets. What is your comment?

SC: The 70:30 benchmark for revenue to salaries is clearly not being applied by most councils. We are now taking up the matter and this is part of the reason why we are mobilising our members to be part of all councils’ budget process.

As ZNOART we are going to fight in the residents’ corner because every council, municipality, town or city should make sure they budget 30 percent of their revenue towards salaries, and 70 percent towards service delivery. The violation of this policy rule compromises service delivery.

RM: What needs to be done to compel local authorities to comply?

SC: We cannot have salaries gobbling up the largest chunk of revenue that is paid by ratepayers. ZNOART is urging all councils to publish their 2022 Budget in different formats, such as print outs, or digital PDFs or word documents that can be widely circulated on platforms such as emails and WhatsApp.

Zimbabweans in all parts of the country have a right to understand how councils allocate and uses revenues. So the starting point is the wide circulation of the budget proposals and then the budget itself. We need to examine, by how much, these councils are failing to adhere to the 70:30 rule. This will make residents demand transparent use of 2022 service levies so that services reach the desired intentions.

Most towns and cities lack strong engagement with ratepayers especially during budget consultations, resulting in non-transparent use of revenue. In the future and funds permitting, we will consider taking non-compliant local authorities to court.

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