Dog tax? What dog tax?

Column in Grocott’s Mail June 12 2012

It’s amazing what you can learn from looking at official documents. For instance, I learned from the budget documentation released at a special council meeting the Tuesday before last (May 29) that there is a dog tax. I have never paid a dog tax in Grahamstown and I don’t know anyone else who has either. Nevertheless, it’s there in the accounts as an item.

But the document also details the cost for the next financial year, which starts on July 1, of the municipal manager and other managers.

Budgeted for this coming year is around R1.1-million for the municipal manager (before a maximum performance bonus equivalent to 14% of salary), and I hope that the municipal manager realises that this salary level qualifies him or her for private banking.

Is this a lot or little for a municipal manager? This is about a third of what the municipal manager of Johannesburg, the centre of South Africa’s economic activity, reportedly earns, and about half the reported salary of the municipal manager of the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality.

Makana is a relatively small municipality, most of whose economic activity centres on Grahamstown, with an operating budget of around R300-million and a capital budget of around R125-million.

The total spent on the mayor, municipal managers and other executives is budgeted to rise by only 6%, but at R6-million it’s almost 6% of the total budget for municipal pay. Are the other directors and the chief financial officer worth their annual salaries of around R800,000?

More important for me in judging whether the municipal manager deserves more than R1-million a year is whether he or she ensures that the public gets value for money. More than tackling the infrastructure backlogs we all know about, such as the continued obscenity that is the bucket system, what innovative or imaginative projects has the municipality come up with? I mentioned Stellenbosch’s free wi-fi initiative in a previous column as an example of what can be done if a municipality works with the private sector and a university.

As far as I can see, the only innovation in this small city is generated by the private sector in co-operation with the non-profit sector in the form of the annual festival and the various events, such as the Highway Africa conference, that come out of the university.

What the Makana document also states in passing is that the executive mayor’s official vehicle is budgeted to cost R800 000. Since many Grahamstown residents can only dream of a vehicle like that, I can understand their discomfort. It recalls the outrage that the public expressed at the slew of expensive vehicles bought for new members of Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet.

Symbolism is important, and in an era of belt-tightening, as noted in the budget documents, it would be wise for our leaders to scale down. Why not spend the money fixing the roads so the mayor doesn’t need a top-of-the-range 4X4 vehicle?

For instance, French President Fran├žois Hollande has cut his and his ministers’ pay by 30%, and he aims to tackle inequality by limiting the salaries of those who head French state-owned companies to a maximum of 20 times that of lower-paid employers. Closer to home, Malawi’s new president Joyce Banda is embracing thrift by ditching the presidential jet and a fleet of 60 luxury government Mercedes cars.

Aside from symbolism, the most revealing figure in the budget is that only around R24-million of the R125-million capital spending comes from revenue generated by the municipality. Actual requests for own-revenue generated capital spending were R71-million. Capital spending makes a lasting difference to the quality of life in the city, or at least it should do. Most of the money for capital spending comes from grants from central government.

We need as citizens to start to ask hard questions. If we are not generating enough revenue to tackle the upgrading of roads, the fixing of water and electricity distribution, and providing proper waste removal and sewage, we need as a city to have a plan to get the money. Repeating that the city’s ageing infrastructure is a problem is no solution.

We know that the city only gets in 75 cents out of every rand it bills for electricity, water, rates and services. The question is why. What does the fact that the municipality cannot collect a dog tax of R60 or so from its richer residents say about the efficiency of other collection mechanisms and indeed the municipality itself?

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