By Chipo Musoko, HARARE, July 27 (The Source) – Government says the Victoria Falls Town Council was justified in effecting a 650 percent increase in levies early this year, despite complaints from ratepayers, Parliament heard on Monday.
The council move was sharply criticized by business, particularly the tourism sector who said the increase would make the town even more expensive and scare away tourists.
Local government acting permanent secretary, Joseph Mhakayakora told the parliamentary portfolio committee on environment, water, tourism and hospitality industry that a team of valuers had been dispatched to the town to undertake a valuation of properties to reveal whether or not the rates were reasonable.
“The team will complete its field work in August and they will compile their report by end of September and then the local authority will advertise the results. And if there are any objections, these will be looked at by the valuation board,” he said.
Mhakayakora said by late November the valuations would be certified and implemented from January next year.
He defended the increase saying that the new rates, which were part of the 2015 budget, had been increased after wider consultation.
“The approval was granted was after carrying out a meticulous analysis of the previous rates that were charged prior to the increase which were sub-economic,” he said.
He said the increase was also necessitated by cost drivers such as transport to ferry goods to the resort town, supplier tariffs, water, electricity and maintenance of infrastructure.
This, he added was exacerbated by debt-write offs imposed by government in 2013.
Mhakayakora said the hike would enable the council to break even.
“Before the hike, some services were being charged as low as a dollar which was sub-economic and suicidal,” he said, adding that Victoria Falls was not a cheap place to do business.
The principal director responsible for urban local authorities, Erica Jones told the committee that the hike was not new but had been suspended at dollarization in 2009 when local residents, including business sector complained that the rates were too high.
She said the council reduced rates by 600 percent at the time and reintroduced it when it was “felt that the environment was now conducive for the original rates.”
Jones said the highest rates were not higher than $9,000 per month for businesses.
However, she said the complaints had not been channelled properly.
As procedure ratepayers would negotiate with their local authority and if they fail to agree, both the district and provincial administrators were empowered to arbitrate, she said.
“Unfortunately the ratepayers did not follow that procedure. And the first time we knew that that there was an objection was when the minister (of tourism) came to visit the minister of local government,” she said.