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Friday, August 7, 2020

PONDER MY THOUGHTS

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Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr: Between A Rock And A Hard Place

As Mayor of the municipality of Freetown, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr has received widespread praise for her stewardship of the city from various quarters. Despite this, she has been walking a tight rope between a government with an uncertain interrelationship, council workers who may not be keen on reform and her APC party that may be lukewarm to her for her “cozy accommodation” with the government in power. Now added to this list is a group of her own ardent supporters who are irked by the current property rate increase-a group that has hitherto sworn by her. The open revolt by some ostensibly better financially endowed Freetown residents who bear the brunt of the rate increases has been a shock to her. Surprisingly, some government functionaries have latched on to the discontent and have meted out vitriolic criticisms on her in their media appearances, accusing her of being insensitive to the plight of people in the middle of a pandemic.

The SLPP’s new posture with the Mayor is surprising as the government was for a long time supportive of her various endeavours. The accusation from some SLPP quarters is hard to understand but seems to be that she gives the impression she is doing all her reforms by herself and not giving enough credit to government. Some die-hards may also consider it anathema to work with “the devil” APC Mayor.

But what is the basis for the Mayor’s success and why does she enjoy the confidence of so many Freetown residents? She is good at mastering her brief and forging alliances and has a considerable number of achievements under her belt. Her Transform Freetown Initiatives (TFI) has yielded impressive results (as reflected in the 2019 report). Out of 49 projects embarked upon, 31 were completed by the end of 2019. The 49 projects had a total contracted value of Le 87 bn. (USD 9m)-67% of these were in sanitation, 10 % in urban planning and housing and 11% in revenue mobilisation. Most of the funds for the specific TFI amounting to Le 82 bn. (USD 8.5 m) came from donors-94%, with FCC providing Le 3 bn. (USD 0.3 m), GOSL Le 1 bn. (USD 0.1 m) and private sector Le 1 bn. (USD 0.1 m). 

Fiscal transfers for 2019 by the central government to FCC amounted to only Le 14.1 bn. (64% of budgeted). FCC received Le 7.8 bn. less from government than stated in the 2019 budget. Some Le 7.8 bn. was spent on hospitals -Kingharman Road, Rokupa etc. and Le 0.8 bn. on Education. Money for traditional council functions was very small- Administrative expenses amounted to Le 2.3 bn., waste disposal Le 0.8 bn. and social services Le 1.4 bn. These figures exclude the disbursement of Le 8.5 bn. for 2019 National Cleaning Days.

FCC has worked with a host of partners on its various projects. These include forming a consortium of NGOs to work on a slum relocation programme, rebuilding houses after fires in slums with some NGOs, working on flood mitigation programmes with the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF)- (12.64 km of gutters excavated, 27 bridges cleaned, 57 waterways were cleared), improving critical infrastructure to reduce the risk of disasters etc. Its partners are many and have included Irish Aid, UNOPS, CRS and several others. DFID funded a geo mapping exercise. FCC with funding from the European Union and IOM, procured and distributed 80 tricycles and ancillary support materials to 80 micro-enterprise groups to collect household waste across Freetown. Each group is made up of 10 members, so employment was provided for 800 youth. The list of achievements of the Transform Freetown Initiatives is truly impressive.

The FCC has also collaborated considerably with MDAs on its projects. These include the SLRSA, Transport Ministry, EPA, Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, Guma Valley Water Company, ONS, Sierra Leone Police and many others.

A read of the Transform Freetown report indicates that the Mayor acknowledges all those that have helped with the TFI. She writes in the 2019 TFI report on this:

“We thank all that have supported #TransformFreetown, especially the central government. Special thanks also goes to our development partners and NGOs, our biggest source of funding for implementing our vision.”

FCC’s normal functions including having 120 sweepers to sweep 46 markets and 55 major streets, handling garbage collection in 46 markets, emptying and rehabilitating toilets, sanitary inspectors, maintenance of 11 cemeteries etc. all demand money.

As much as government provided some funding, the bulk of the council’s expenditure in 2019-up to 70%, came from donors. Government’s attempt to meet normal running costs was still insufficient.

Nobody seems to fault the FCC for reviewing property rates to get some additional revenue to function properly. The critics have however questioned the huge hike and what they consider lack of consideration for certain special circumstances.

One scathing petition noted:

“Increasing city rates in JUNE upwards of 800% in the middle of a pandemic is inhumane, heartless, inconsiderate and ill-timed. The people are suffering, struggling to make through each day. And you roll out such hikes! You are also expecting fully paid up folks to pay the difference in JUNE! You must rescind this immediately.”

Government “attack dogs” have disparaged the FCC, calling the Mayor heartless and accusing her of being oblivious of the dire economic plight of residents in the middle of a pandemic. This reeks of hypocrisy. I very much doubt, however if the vile criticism in the media by them are sanctioned by the government. Someone put this hypocritical posture in the right perspective like this- “If the government were really worried about the plight of those that are affected by the hike (the bulk of the populace have actually had a rate decrease) they would have in their arsenals more instruments to ease tax burdens – for decreasing income taxes, GST and other taxes.” With only 64% of the slated government budget disbursed in 2019 and no disbursement made to FCC since the start of the year and with FCC salaries unpaid for the past two months, it beggars belief that the government will come out actively against the FCC on this issue.

FCC badly needs revenue if it is to tackle its myriad problems of sanitation, waste disposal, control of public order in markets, public toilets etc. FCC says the new system is now comparatively fair and progressive.  The Mayor says revamping property taxes will bring in five times more revenue this year. An additional 60,000 properties have been added to the FCC systems, which had never been on their database. The annual property rates for 80% of all properties in Freetown  is still less than Le500,000 a year or Le42,000 a month.

The Mayor has gone on a media offensive to better explain and to dispel some false notions about the new property tax regime.

Some of the Mayor’s supporters have started fighting back in the media-and the media blitz is unrelenting! One remarked:

“I am ashamed to look my British and American friends in the eye when they ask me why my friends and co-city dwellers who live in houses valued at $100,000 – $500,000 (and/or charging rent of $3000 – $25,000 per year) are unwilling to pay local taxes of $300 – $700 per year and yet want to spend $1000 to fly to London or Maryland every other year to “take a break.”

It would appear that some concerns initially expressed were understandably knee jerk reactions from people who say the high rate charged them was astronomically high. Some had genuine concerns because their earning power was currently severely constrained. Further clarifications of issues have shed further light on the basis for the charges and indicated that payments can be delayed up to September 30, 2019. There are also avenues for appeal.

Despite the criticisms, not all critics want to bring Mayor Aki-Sawyerr down and some may indeed have issues than may be genuine. It behoves the Mayor not to dismiss these critics with a slight of the hand but to engage them and see if they can have a common ground. It is heartening to note that the Mayor has started meeting various groups of stakeholders to discuss their concerns and has already taken remedial action on some genuine problems highlighted. It seems apparent from one such meeting there will be consideration for a policy for pensioners and further extending this year’s due date.

The Mayor meets with the Local Government Minister this week to discuss government’s concerns, and judging by comments made by some government supporters who are spoiling for a fight, the Minister should read her the riot act and force her to comply with government dictates (whatever those may be). I doubt however whether the Minister will behave this way. I expect an active engagement to share ideas. The urbane Minister after all comes from Britain where he has lived a long time as a rate payer and being a reasonable man understands the value of rates to running a municipality. It also behoves the Honourable Minister to discuss the unhealthy problem of the government not meeting its financial obligations to the FCC and other councils. And as for the “attack dogs”, they need to be put into a kennel-a leash may not be enough! The Mayor should also be allowed to continue with her consultations with stakeholders and she should be ready to be accommodating of their views. It does not help the FCC and Central government to be at daggers drawn with each other. They should all to look at the greater good of we the 1.2 million residents of this municipality. Here is to hoping that common sense will prevail on this rates issue and that the Mayor will not be caught between a rock and a hard place.

Ponder my thoughts

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