Inflated municipal council members’ remuneration – Are tax payers getting value for money?

Simone Gray and JP Purshotam

A council meeting of the West Coast District Municipality in 2019

Local government plays a key role in social and economic upliftment of local communities and is tasked with prioritizing and ensuring that all people within their municipal jurisdiction have access to basic services such as water, sanitation and refuse removal. Yet, the unfortunate reality is that in many municipalities, there is a great backlog in the provision of services. In eThekwini Metro for instance, there is an existing backlog of 277 458 consumers who do not have access to sanitation which, on the current delivery range per year, will take 70 – 90 years to address. Similarly, the existing consumer unit backlog for water is 168 894 which on average, will take 30-40 years to address.

It is not only service delivery at a local government level which remains a problem however, corruption is also ever-present. We read about RDP housing allocation fraud involving municipal councillors, tender scandals involving municipal officials, and more recently, councillors saving food parcels for their friends and family, rather than ensuring that they reach the poor and vulnerable most affected by the implications of covid-19.

In spite of these shortcomings, our municipal council members still receive sizable remuneration packages. The question needs to be asked: are tax payers really getting value for money? Recently the Minister of Co-Operative Governance and Traditional Affairs determined the upper limits of salaries, allowances and benefits of members of municipal councils in terms of the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers Act 20 of 1998. This is essentially a determinant on what municipal officials can earn. The determination published by the Minister is the upper limits  – that is, the maximum remuneration that a municipal official can receive. The actual pay determined for each municipal official may vary from this upper limit as it must have regard to, among other things, the affordability of the municipality to pay, and the austerity measures adopted by the National Cabinet. However, it remains to be seen whether the councils automatically award their councillors the upper limit, or a lesser amount depending on affordability and austerity.

Scrutinizing what our civil servants earn now is more important than ever. Covid-19 and the lockdown has threatened the livelihoods of many South Africans. President Ramaphosa announced that he, together with his Cabinet, deputy ministers and premiers, would take a one-third cut in their salaries for the next three months. This money is to be donated to the National Solidarity Fund to assist those in need. But what are our municipal council members earning during this time? The upper limits of what councillors can earn is municipality-dependent, but to give an indication, the upper limit of the total remuneration payable to a metro municipality’s mayor is R1 404 260, while that payable to a mayor in a small local municipality (a grade one municipality) is R782 582. This is not the only remuneration payable to councillors – they also may receive sitting allowances of up to R1103.23 per day for attending council or committee meetings if the councillor is one who serves in governance or intergovernmental structures of organised local government.

Part-time councillors also receive substantial remuneration packages. The upper limit of the total annual remuneration package payable to a metro municipality part-time mayor is R787 141, while other part-time members can earn up to R525 904. In addition to these remuneration packages, councillors are also entitled to cellphone allowances of up to R3400 pm and data of up to R300 pm. The municipality is also required to take out, at its own cost, special risk insurance cover over properties that belong to councillors for R1.5 million; councillors’ vehicles R750 000; and life or disability insurance cover equal to twice the total annual package of the councillor.  Therefore the life cover for a full-time grade-6 mayor would be R2 808 520.

How does this compare to 2019?

In December 2018, the upper limit for full-time councillors serving as mayors in metro municipalities was set at R135 0250 in annual remuneration package, which means that this upper limit has been increased by R54 010 in 2020. But 2020 is not just any year – this is the year of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is the year where the pandemic has forced government to reroute spending to assist the most vulnerable by providing food parcels, increasing social grants, providing financial assistance through the Temporary Employee Relief Scheme to employees who have been laid off and ensuring finances are made available to micro, small and medium enterprises which have been hardest hit by the pandemic. This is the year where financial resources are spread thin and where government spending should be diverted to the most poor and vulnerable. Many citizens have expressed outrage at municipal officials’ salary increases included in municipal budgets and have called on municipal officials to follow the President’s example and assist the poor instead.

Our councillors are well taken care of financially and in exchange, we must expect the best in service delivery. One wonders whether the inflated salaries of councillors are the best use of limited resources, particularly in a time when the fiscus is strained beyond capacity. Looking at their remuneration packages, we have to make sure that municipal council members are held accountable for their actions or lack thereof, that they are serving their communities as civil servants are supposed to – ensuring that basic services are provided to all, that the most poor and vulnerable are taken care of and that we, as tax payers, are indeed getting value for money.