Overtime for uMgungundlovu firefighters cut ahead of fire season in desperate austerity drive
The cuts coincide with the start of the annual fire season in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. With an area spanning 9,513km2 and populated by more than a million people, the UMDM couldn’t have curtailed spending in a fire-prone region at a worse time.
The uMgungundlovu District Municipality (UMDM) serving the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands has slashed its emergency services in an austerity drive as it battles the non-payment of water service bills.
In a circular to staff, The Pietermaritzburg-headquartered UMDM said it was in severe financial distress operating on “unfunded budget” and was instructed “to take drastic action by the Auditor-General, Cogta [Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs] and Treasury to ensure its sustainability, and the employment security of staff and councillors.”
To make up for its failure to collect revenue, the UMDM is cutting back its emergency response and critical maintenance services by terminating all overtime and standby allocations. In what it calls a review of its “salary budget”, overtime for firefighters and technical staff is cancelled. Instead, a shift system will be implemented to deal with breakdowns and emergency responses.
The usual emergency response staff complement has been replaced with 17 novice firefighters recruited through the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP). For the past week, they have been on standby to fight fires, deal with accidents on the N3, and respond to emergencies.
In other austerity measures, technical staff like plumbers, truck drivers and water tank supervisors are either no longer on out-of-hours standby, or else had their allocations drastically cut.
A plumber who last month claimed 22 days in overtime is this month curtailed to two weekends.
Similarly, the fire unit is now on a 14-day standby instead of 30, while the disaster management unit will work on a “case to case” basis.
The cut-back in emergency response capacity does not sit well with fire professionals, but it is the spectre of an EPWP emergency crew being asked to contain a crisis beyond their capacity that frightens them.
Responses, some unprintable, were obtained from active firefighters, all of whom insisted on anonymity in the interests of professionalism and some fearing victimisation. The sentiments of Joseph Smith* of Stardust Fire Protection Service (*not his real name) were typical of the respondents.
“What training have these people had? How are they going to cope with a chemical accident on the N3? Or a fire raging through a squatter camp?”
The Democratic Alliance said the austerity measures should not compromise the municipality’s emergency services.
“The need for cost containment is obvious with the municipality in near collapse, but not at the expense of service delivery and safety of residents,” said Hazel Lake, DA whip on the UMDM council.
The other austerity measures cut to the root of the triple problem — poor billing administration, failure to collect revenue and a culture of non-payment. Top of the action list in the staff circular is the “cleansing and alignment of our water consumer database and billing administration”, followed by a vague promise of “aggressive actions against consumers who are not paying their water accounts” and a belated resolve for “awareness campaigns to communities with a culture of non-payment.”
The crimping of emergency response and technical capacity — under the “salary budget” review — raises uncomfortable questions about the UMDM’s priorities.
“Retreating from its mandate is the last thing we’d expect from a municipality responsible for more than 1 million people in the KZN interior,” said Lake. “The officials need no reminding that the Midlands almost certainly can expect fires in informal settlements,” she said.
The real question, Lake pointed out, was how the UMDM officials intend to turn things around.
“As things stand now, they’ve dug themselves a deep hole,” she said.
The municipality has a more sanguine perspective on its financial plight and promises, without irony, that “(i)t cannot be business as usual when the reality we are faced with, clearly points us to the direction of serious cost-containment initiatives.”
According to marketing and communications manager Brian Zuma, the municipality has no option, “it’s a directive from the Political Leadership”. He said the municipality has given itself a few months “to turn the situation around to get back to normal”.
The definition of “normal” isn’t immediately obvious as the UMDM’s financial woes clearly are the result of administrative inadequacies and ineffective management over a long time.
Instead, Zuma cited a Cogta report that only 5% of municipalities were financially stable and said UMDM’s plight should be seen in the “broader context”.
Zuma said there was no crisis and “work on the ground is continuing, and there is constant monitoring on the provision of services”. To deal with its misfiring revenue collection function, a South African Local Government Association (Salga) official was deployed “to provide assistance, guidance and leadership”. Zuma hinted that all was not well in the administrative corridors and that the municipality’s customer identification, data cleansing and capturing, billing, collection, and Customer Relationship Management systems were lacking.
To deal with a culture of non-payment, the UMDM plans to appeal to thieves to stop vandalising infrastructure and also plead with “customers to come forward and pay for the services that they are enjoying”.
Zuma did not address concerns about the readiness of 17 EPWP firefighters to deal with emergencies. DM/OBP