Water tax ‘shines light’ on absurdity


Now that the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry has called on the Cape Town City Council to drop the proposed stealth tax based on property values, designed to compensate for the loss of revenue from water sales, it’s time to shine a light on other absurdities that the Mother City’s lawmakers have condoned.

And there are plenty of them, mostly overlooked by the 800 000 long-suffering ratepayers who pay the salaries of the 27 000 council employees, laughingly referred to in some quarters as municipal civil servants.

From the perspective of anyone who has worked in a modern corporation, the way the council operates provides classic examples of how not to do it.

Not that the council can be compared to anything in the business world; rather it is more like a mini-welfare state, a place where socialists come to spend other people’s money on their favourite fads – cycle lanes that no one uses comes to mind, but there are more, many more.

“Other people’s money” refers here to the dollops of cash removed from homeowners’ pockets in every-increasing amounts, especially if they renovate their homes and increase their value, or happen to live in a recently fashionable, desirable suburb.

But there is more to the chaotic style of the City’s management than its antique method of levying taxes.

Its latest attempt, the proposed tax on water, aroused at last the wrath of ratepayers – 52 000 of them is the latest estimate. Considering the notorious apathy of Capetonian this is an enormous number.

The Cape Chamber of Commerce President, Janine Myburgh, has demanded the council reduces its costs, “just as any private sector company would do in these circumstances”.

Exactly right.

She added: “You cannot punish customers for buying less….”

Absolutely! If the council was a business, it would go broke, punished for regarding its customers (and paymasters) as cows to be milked.

But, alas, the council is not a business. It is an overmanned, overpaid bureaucracy with a democratic overlay to disguise the fact. Indeed, telling the difference between sinecured officials and elected officials is almost impossible.

Is this too harsh a judgment? Try as an ordinary citizen getting in touch by telephone with an official with any authority. All you will get is a carousel playing lousy music until a semi-trained “consultant” bothers to answer your call and then cannot do much or anything about your problem. To crown it all, the consultant is not employed by the council.

It is not the call centre operators’ fault. It is the cadre of 8 000 council office workers, the managers, who are the culprits. They have deliberately insulated and isolated themselves from the public they are supposed to serve.

So, too, have the city council’s elected officials. When told by their minions in the multitude of council departments that things are getting a bit expensive, they seem to accept without question that the answer is an increase in the rates,  a jump in the electricity price – or a water levy.  Not to worry; the ratepayers can always pay more.

If the councillors were operating a company there would be staff cutbacks, economy drives and generally a hunt for greater efficiency – actions they seem never to consider. Permanent officials naturally regard such things as anathema.

In recent years water charges have increased more than inflation; rates have gone up faster than wages, and definitely faster than pensions.

Electricity charges are a disgrace. Using less electricity results in a price increase; using less water is punished; the number of council employees and consultants is on an upward spiral – even under the DA. Indeed, municipal salaries are better than those in the private sector

Imagine a private company that ordered its customers to pay more for its products and forced them to continue buying them. It reminds one of Marie Antoinette’s demands that people should eat cake since there was no bread available.

Meanwhile, the mindset of the Mayor is bizarre.  Undaunted by the flood of objections to the proposed property-based drought surcharge – she insists it is not an illegal tax or a levy – she states flatly that people are using less water, thus the income of the city “is less, and this had to be made up”. A metaphorical two-fingered salute to the ratepayers, one could say.

Cape Town’s electricity prices are the highest of any city, but the pre-payment system must have reduced the costs – fewer meter readers, fewer electricity accounts, less postage, fewer cash offices, less banking of cheques, less non-payment and associated costs. Rubbing salt into the wound is that every increase is subject to VAT as well.

Why are these savings not passed on to the consumers who are local voters?

Given a drop in company revenue, no manager employed by a corporation would be allowed to employ more staff, yet that is what the DA has allowed to happen in the city council.

In 2006, on day one of the DA administration, the city staff numbered 21 981. Today it is 27 000 and rising.

It makes no sense when more people pay council bills by electronic transfer. It makes less sense still now that Wesgro, the Green Cape Initiative, and improvement districts do work previously done by the municipality.

The Cape Town Stadium has had its staff increase from six to 44. There are now ward committees and sub-councils. We have ‘mini-mayors’ and community liaison officers.

Councillors are extremely well paid, sub-council chairs are paid even more, and (then there are) the rewards for mini-mayors and their support staff.

There is no attempt to reduce bureaucracy and administration costs.

The City allows the local government association (SALGA) to negotiate with the unions.

The private sector pays the City’s bills. It is time the City took notice and took lessons on how to run a large organisation.

Keith Bryer is an energy analyst and retired communicator and journalist

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