BY BOKANI MUDIMBA
COVID-19 has set Victoria Falls Town Council and residents are at loggerheads over payment of bills.
The resort town could be the hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, which brought to a halt the local economy that is largely reliant on tourism.
International travel restrictions led to the closure of the tourism industry and other businesses which depend on tourists to survive.
Thousands were rendered jobless with no disposable income to pay council rates.
According to tourism industry trade unionist Edward Dzapasi, about 90% of Victoria Falls residents were employed in the tourism industry and more than three-quarters of them had lost their jobs because of the Covid-19 induced lockdown.
Godfrey Sibanda, a senior resident and businessman, accused the council of being insensitive to people’s plight by charging exorbitant tariffs.
“Council is the only institution that is getting money in this town during this Covid-19 period because they continue to exorbitantly bill businesses and people despite loss of jobs,” Sibanda said.
“They should at least be considerate and waive some rates until the situation improves because people are struggling and surviving on well-wishers.”
Sibanda argued that it was only reasonable for the council to consider suspending some levies.
Residents who attended council’s 2021 budget consultation meetings that started last week concur.
Last year the council crafted a $354 million budget, an increase of more than 800% from the $22 million budget for 2019, causing conflict with residents who complained that monthly water charges had skyrocketed to around $3 000 on average per household.
“Council bills and rates are just too high. They don’t even consider that people are affected by Covid-19. How can a resident who lost a job be charged $4 000 for water?
“We have been paying streetlights, education, roads and environmental levies for the past 20 years, but the service is still not there.
“This shows they (levies) are not important and should be suspended until the situation improves,” said Nelly Dube, chairperson of Chinotimba Old Market Vendors Association.
Each household pays $20 per month for each of the levies.
Victoria Falls Combined Residents Association chairman Kelvin Moyo urged council to find alternative ways of getting revenue.
“They should come up with sustainable ways of raising revenue than to wait for ratepayers,” Moyo said.
“Overcharging residents will not improve revenue flows, but will worsen the situation leaving ratepayers indebted.”
The town’s deputy mayor Patricia Mwale, who is the councillor for ward 4, encouraged residents to engage the municipality and follow up on their concerns.
Speaking during budget meetings, town treasurer Neville Ndlovu acknowledged that residents were failing to pay as the council had by June 30 only collected $44 million from $99 million worth of invoices.
He said council had targeted to collect $152 million of the total $354 million at half year.
“Covid-19 led to closure of tourism, loss of jobs, change of currency and pricing system which has affected our operations because we depend on the tourism industry. We can only hope Covid-19 ends soon,” said Ndlovu.
“Land levy is a supplementary or rate charged by the local authority on every resident while streetlights levy is a public good service charge also paid by every resident living in town.
“Only the education levy is negotiable and can be removed if residents feel so.”
While there is no government position on rates payment by ratepayers in the wake of Covid-19, Local Government and Public Works minister July Moyo recently sent a circular to all local authorities stating that councils were with immediate effect compelled to invite officials from the ministry to attend all full council meetings to safeguard national interests, which include monitoring budgets.
At the start of the lockdown, President Emmerson Mnangagwa called for a three-month waiver of rentals for businesses and citizens, but lifted the moratorium at the end of June.
l This article was originally published by The Citizen Bulletin, a hyperlocal news outlet covering Covid-19 in Matabeleland.