The Central District Council is crying. As carried in our edition yesterday, the local authority, the country’s largest, has made a desperate appeal to legislators after the central government cut the 2015/16 budget the Council had requested by 34 percent.
The CDC says the budget cut will grievously affect service delivery, provision of schoolbooks and materials to pupils, destitute programmes, infrastructure maintenance, replacement of vehicles and others.
For yet another year, the close to 200,000 residents of the district will have to make do with the deferral of projects such as; construction of warehouses for supplementary feeding, construction and upgrading of roads, and others. The CDC is crying, but it is not crying alone. Since 2008, local authorities have received tighter funding from the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, as part of broader spending cuts instituted in response to the global recession.
The CDC has seen the gap between its proposed and its actual funding average a negative 26 percent since the 2012/13 financial year, and other councils are no better. While in absolute figures, most councils are seeing nominal improvements in budgetary support from central government, it is the cumulative effects of historic underfunding, inflation and population growth that have landed communities in a service delivery quagmire. All councils are battling high maintenance backlogs, poor state of fleet and plant, as well as static development due to a pattern of below-request funding that has persisted from 2008 and continues today. The 2015/16 recurrent budget of the Gaborone City Council (GCC), for instance, is technically 6.3 percent higher than 2014/15 and yet the local authority plans to cut funding of three out of eight budget areas.
“Priority areas, although catered for, will not be to the level of our expectations,” said Sesupo Jacobs, chair of the GCC finance committee, in commenting on the budget. The barely-get-by approach is ruinous to local authorities and the communities they serve because the various councils are the primary purveyors of taxpayer-funded services to taxpayers.
While recognising the need for local authorities to increasingly generate their own revenue, it is near impossible for them to be competitive and attract investors when historic underfunding has crippled the delivery of services and projects.
The ball, however, is not totally in central government’s court. Local authorities are notoriously poor at accounting for the grants they receive from central government and the trend appears unstoppable. The GCC, the country’s richest authority by own income, failed an audit into its finances for March 2010, being the last such audit carried out. Public finance hawks in central government will no doubt pounce on such revelations to argue for greater limitations on the mandate of local authorities and the funds disbursed in this regard. In as much as local authorities appeal for greater funding and greater autonomy, they need to demonstrate greater accountability and transparency in handling public funds.
“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.”
- Holy Bible