Write-offs change nothing

In the midst of total debt of R149-million owed to Ndlambe Municipality as of February 2019, council is poised to write off R17-million before the end of the financial year this month.

Let that sink in. Our council writes off far more debt than it ever recovers from defaulting municipal account holders. And yet the total debt keeps growing.

In what is the most detailed list ever presented in a council agenda, residents can now see who owes what – if they are getting a write-off that is. If the municipality feels it can still get unpaid arrears out of you, your name will not be there.

The vast variances in the amounts owed in the lists are mind-boggling. Why is an amount of an unpaid R5 still lingering on the books, while arrears in other cases were allowed to escalate to hundreds of thousands of rands before the municipality got around to probing the reasons why?

They found in some cases, the account holder had died, and his or her family simply stopped paying the municipal bill while living in the house and running up water and electricity costs. In whatever process the municipal debt collectors follow, these families obviously pleaded poverty and the municipality has accepted their stories.

The downside for them of course, is after proving their family member has indeed died, they now have to open municipal accounts in their own name and not get a free lunch on their dead relative’s tab.

In other cases, people who are not registered indigents also simply stopped paying their bills without making any approaches to the municipality on their economic circumstances. Again, debt was allowed to accumulate before the municipal debt collectors established that the non-payers must now be considered de facto indigents even if they are not registered as such.

For some context, in the municipality’s debtors age analysis in the latest council agenda, it breaks down debt owed by groups.

Total debt owed by Ndlambe residents is R99,774,088. Of that, only R7,817,786 is classified as indigent debt – for which the municipality receives relief in the form of the equitable share. The bulk of nearly R92m is classified as debt owed by “non-indigents”.

Interest accounts for R25m, and the rest is divided into rural/farmers’ debt of R10,7m, deceased account holders R5,7m, business R3,5m, government departments R2,9m, municipal staff R1,2m and councillors who owe a measly R16,588.

What is perplexing is that aside from genuine indigent status, the municipality admits that some consumers are exceeding their “free basic services” and running up huge water and electricity bills, yet there is no answer to this except to write it off.

– Jon Houzet

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