In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Victoria Falls residents say the city council is mistreating them.
The Victoria Falls City Council was recently forced to reverse a 400 percent water and rates hike by angry residents who accused the municipality of being insensitive to their plight.
Godfrey Sibanda, a pensioner who once worked for the council, accuses the local authority management of milking a dying cow.
“The tourism industry, which is the backbone of the Victoria Falls economy, is dead, yet they expect people to have money,” he says.
“We sent our objections to the budget, but all that was not considered as they are implementing it without our consent. The council is only seeking to fundraise through people who are already struggling,” Sibanda says.
Residents say they received bills ranging between $4 000 and $9 000 in January after the council hiked water and service charges by up to 400 percent.
Service charges had increased from between $300 and $500 and between $1 200 and $1 600 per month.
Many fear they will not afford to pay as they are already in debt, hence the call for a downward review.
Fortunately, the council gave in to the pressure and reduced water from US$5 to US$3 per unit, while those who clear arrears that accrued before March 2020 when the lockdown was effected will enjoy a waiver of interest rates.
Council reduced license fees by about 170 percent, reversing a 370 percent hike announced in its 2021 budget.
The resolution was made at a recent special council meeting convened on the insistence of residents.
“Everybody knows that we are already in debt because we lost our jobs; hence we are struggling even with providing food for our families,” said Sifiso Sibanda, another Vic Falls resident.
“People won’t pay because they don’t have the money. They had no option but just to reduce the rates,” Sifiso says.
The impasse between Victoria Falls council and its residents over bills is not new. Last year, residents petitioned councillors seeking a downward review of rates, saying the resort city had been hit hard by the pandemic, leaving many with no jobs and disposable income.
Victoria Falls relies on tourism as its economic backbone.
The whole industry is grounded, and employees lost jobs due to the international lockdown that restricted travel and leisure.
The tourism industry partially opened in December for the festive season when many hotels and lodges recorded more than 50 percent of bookings from holidaymakers. Still, the result was deadly as the country was hit by a COVID-19 variant spread from South Africa.
Residents accuse the council of being insensitive to their plight in light of a gloomy economic outlook.
The Combined Victoria Falls Residents Association (Vifacora) and representatives of tourism trade unions have welcomed the council’s resolution, although they remain uncertain about workers’ future.
“We met and expressed the demands of residents that rates should be reviewed downwards due to eroded disposable income caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Moyo, Vifacora chair.
“Initially, the response we got was not promising or giving hope of any downward review. We are happy that they have finally seen reason in this,” says Moyo.
He appealed to councillors and policymakers to assist in forging a modest solution by engaging management. However, a resident, Jonson Ndlovu, says residents were prepared to fight fire with fire had the council not acceded.
“If they cannot reduce rates, then we shouldn’t even consider paying anything,” Johnson Ndlovu says.
Council says the decision to slash rates is within the Urban Councils Act dictates and is subject to approval by Local Government Minister July Moyo.
However, some critics have blamed residents for shunning budget consultation meetings where they should express their views.
Procedurally, after completing budget consultation meetings, the council gives residents and ratepayers 30 days to submit objections before the plan is sent to the Minister of Local Government for approval.
Local Government Minister July Moyo recently called on businesses and residents to pay bills for sustainable service delivery. He said the government will not reduce approved budgets, but it is up to councils to do so as they know their residents’ difficulties.
Source: The Citizen Bulletin