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The impression one would gain after reading the opinion piece by Glen Robbins, “Council still budgeting in the dark”, in The Mercury on May 24 is that an inept eThekwini municipality is failing to provide adequate consultation to the local community on the budget.
To lay the blame squarely at the door of “errant politicians and bureaucrats” for the poorly attended community consultation meetings is unfair and not entirely justified.
The Municipal Systems Act, 2000, speaks of three integral components, namely the political structures, administration and the community, which are required to work together to enable municipalities to move progressively towards social and economic upliftment of their communities.
For participatory budgeting to work, all three stakeholders have to play their respective roles and undertake their responsibilities with energy and commitment.
Apathy displayed by any one of these three stakeholders will render the whole process dysfunctional and ineffective.
The Municipal Systems Act also defines “duties” for each of the stakeholders mentioned above.
Falling within the broad ambit of these duties is for communities to be responsive to the municipality’s initiatives to involve them in processes such as the formulation of the budget and integrated development plan.
Ever since the Municipal Finance Management Act, 2003, made it a statutory requirement for the municipality to consult with the community on its budget, the participation of members of the public at these budget hearings over the years has varied.
Numbers attending have fluctuated from an encouraging 500 and more some years ago when the rates were “commonised” across the entire eThekwini municipal area and a new valuation roll was produced, to about 50 at some hearings.
It would appear there is a correlation between a “burning issue” that affects ratepayers and attendance at these budget hearings. If there is a burning issue, attendance is good and the converse holds true if there is none. A contributory factor to this year’s generally poor attendances, aside from the football mania and taxi chaos that ruled the streets of Durban on the weekend over which hearings were held, is that there was nothing really controversial or new in the budget.
The media has also played its part in reporting on the budget and its proposed tariffs for ratepayers and consumers of municipal services, which may have influenced the public’s decision to participate or not.
From the side of the administration, I have been involved in providing the appropriate presenters and the necessary technical support staff to field questions at these budget hearings ever since they became a statutory requirement.
I have also personally delivered presentations at those hearings where, it was anticipated there would be lively debate on matters relating to the budget.
The mechanism for engaging with the communities does work and it would be incorrect to assume poor attendance numbers are a failing on the part of the municipality.
We have been hosting budget hearings for more than eight years and are constantly embracing and refining what works and discarding what does not.
Poor attendances do not appear to be an “eThekwini thing” only, since enquiries at other metros show that their attendances appear to be following a similar pattern.
One should not hastily conclude that poor attendances signify a failure of the participation/consultative process.
Ratepayers in some areas have organised themselves into ratepayers’ bodies which articulate their needs effectively and vocally.
Such bodies interact with the city administration on an ongoing basis, not just during budget hearing time. An example of a very active ratepayer association which robustly engages with the city is the Confederation of Mistbelt Ratepayers Association (Conomirra), which operates in the Hillcrest, Outer West areas.
Other societal formations which do interact with the city include religious leaders, an environmental group and small business. The Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry is a long-established organisation which interacts with the city on an ongoing basis on, inter alia, the budget.
The chamber is one of the strongest critics of the city’s budget as utility costs and property rates directly affect the bottom line of their members. It is thus clear that Robbins’s view that “Durban shares a propensity to keep budgeting processes largely within the corridors of municipal buildings” is not borne out by the facts.
In addition, a prolific newspaper letter writer who was very critical of the city’s stewardship of its finances was recently invited to meet with myself and a few senior officials.
He availed himself of the opportunity and after a meeting lasting more than two hours he left a more informed and reassured ratepayer.
Far from “budgeting in the dark,” it is the treasury’s policy to be open and engage with whoever has an issue and is willing to contribute positively towards finding a solution to the city’s many challenges.
For the benefit of those who may not have attended a budget hearing, all questions/issues raised by the public are recorded by an appropriately skilled scribe who is well versed in the city’s operations and later captured onto a composite document of all responses from each hearing.
The composite responses are then tabled as an attachment to a formal report to council which deliberates on the issues raised. There have been cases where such feedback from the public has influenced resource allocation and tariffs increases in the budget.
A typical example some two years ago was when the proposed water tariff of 9.5 percent per annum was reduced to 7.5 percent per annum, following the feedback obtained at the public consultation process.
I am hopeful that once the ward committees become fully operational, they will provide an effective means of conveying the aspirations and concerns of the communities which will begin to shape and inform the budget in a more meaningful way. Robbins cautions that the 2013/14 budget process may be a repeat of this year’s experience unless there is direct engagement with the powers that be.
The eThekwini mayor, James Nxumalo, is on record, as reported in the press, as saying that the budget process for next year will be spread over three months. This should reassure the citizenry that the city is serious about the budget public participation process.
l Krish Kumar is the deputy city manager: treasury at the eThekwini municipality