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How the best-run municipality in SA gets the numbers right

How the best-run municipality in SA gets the numbers right
Saldanha Bay Mayor Andre Truter. (Photo: Supplied)

In a country where many municipalities are drowning in crises and ineptitude, the mayor of Saldanha Bay outlines how this west coast municipality keeps getting it right, and spells out what lessons other municipalities can learn.

On the west coast of South Africa, the Saldanha Bay Municipality (SBM) is unassuming at first glance, promising the peace of semi-rural life with Cape Town less than two hours’ drive away.

However, this quiet area, which boasts seven towns – Saldanha, Langebaan, Vredenburg, Hopefield, Jacob’s Bay, St Helena Bay and Paternoster – has consistently been in Ratings Afrika’s top three municipalities for the past 10 years. This year, Ratings Afrika named Saldanha Bay, along with Midvaal, as the two best-run municipalities in the country.

 

In a separate report, the auditor-general’s 2021/22 municipal audit outcomes shows that over the past 10 years, SBM was thrice listed as “unqualified with findings” in 2013/14 and 2017/18. It received clean audits (unqualified with no findings) in the other seven years.

A clean audit vs ‘unqualified with findings’

A financially unqualified opinion with no findings (clean audit) means the municipality:

  • produced quality financial statements free of material misstatements (in other words, errors or omissions that are so significant that they affect the credibility and reliability of the financial statements);
  • produced quality performance reports that measure and report on performance in a manner that is useful and reliable; and
  • complied with key legislation relating to financial and performance management.

A financially unqualified opinion with findings means the municipality was able to produce quality financial statements, but struggled to produce quality performance reports and/or to comply with all key legislation.

Mayor André Truter, who took office in November 2021, sat down with Daily Maverick to talk about how SBM keeps getting it right, and what lessons other municipalities can learn.

He estimates that the SBM population is around 150,000, although the latest census places it closer to 135,000. “We’ve come through a lot in the last few years. First, there was the drought around 2017. Very few people know that our municipality was 24 hours away from day zero, or running dry. The previous council managed to solve that quietly without stirring up public panic,” he says.

The second big knock was the closure of ArcelorMittal’s Saldanha steel plant towards the end of 2019, which meant the area lost one of its biggest employers — about 1,000 jobs. But Truter points out that the knock-on effect was much wider, with many companies that serviced Saldanha Steel also forced to close their doors and/or retrench staff. He places total job losses in the area closer to 10,000. “Many businesses had the plant as their core client. Even the municipality lost tax income. We are not a business, we manage taxes in return for basic services, and we lost R6-million a month,” says Truter.

The third knock was Covid-19, which led to more business closures. During that time, municipal offices were closed due to lockdown. Truter says he was humbled by the calls he received from residents in poorer areas such as Diazville and Louwville, begging him to open the offices so they could pay their municipal accounts. “We want to pay our money so we don’t fall behind,” is what he was told. “It was humbling to hear people who don’t have much, but have a culture of paying for municipal services,” he says, attributing the municipality’s debt collection rate of 98% in 2022 to this same culture.

A good foundation with the right skill set  

The debt collection rate has fallen to around 96% currently. Truter compares the process to building a house: “you need a good foundation”. “Our budgeting and debt department is probably one of the best in the country. What we’ve done really well is planning deliberately and capacitating our financial department with experts.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Municipalities hoping to access R56bn in Eskom-related debt relief must meet certain criteria

“Many municipalities interfere with administration. I don’t know where our supply chain office is, because a mayor has no business in that office. That’s where contracts are handed out to the public and I will never interfere. Over 10 years, the staff have proven their trustworthiness so they don’t need me interfering or micro-managing, unless a problem arises,” he says.

Rates and service delivery

Truter says Premier Alan Winde opened his eyes years before he became mayor, by pointing out that municipalities are the only “business” that can raise rates because people rely on service delivery. “The budget steering committee has to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt why we can’t drop rates each year.

‘We interrogate our numbers vigorously, and as chairman of the budget steering committee, I ensure we only increase a cost if it will affect our service delivery.’

“If we have done better financially and made a saving, we should share that with our residents. For example, we had a zero increase for water for a few years, and at another stage, we dropped that cost by 2%,” he says. SBM residents’ property rates fell from 10% last year to 7.5% in 2023.

One of the ways the SBM saves money is by using technology to prevent wasted resources. The handling of a recent accident at the St Helena Bay crossing is a good  example. A CCTV camera at the scene was able to pick up that everyone got out of both vehicles and that there were no major injuries. “We took a snapshot that went to emergency services within three minutes. They were able to assess the scene and instead of sending out an entire rescue crew – the big fire engine, the rescue vehicle, the paramedics, and traffic control – we only sent out the paramedics and a bakkie. We will have more money left over because we didn’t spend unnecessarily,” he says. DM

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  • Martin Neethling says:

    It’s quite a feat to get an article like this written – and what an encouraging story it is too – and not mention the party this mayor won his seat with at least once. Attempting to not risk painting the DA in a good light, but still wanting to highlight this success story, takes some doing.

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      I agree that it really is odd that the DA isn’t mentioned here.

      @neesa-moodley could you please explain why?

      Please please take note everyone of all races in our beautiful country.

      It is possible for our country to work for everyone. And it is really so simple – all we have to do is vote DA, and then be a bit patient while they undo all the ANC corruption.

  • David Walker says:

    Does this article deliberately not mention the fact that this is a DA run municipality? Is that not important for readers to know?

  • Paul Fanner says:

    I have a rural property in the Saldanha Bay area. They levy rates, but there are no services, bar occasional scraping of the sand road. Not everything in the garden is all that rosy. A B-minus report card

    • Peter John says:

      Seriously?

      Overall your contribution is to the upkeep and well being of the community you live in. When you go into town for supplies, it is clean, well run, and safe.

      You have much to be thankful for…..

  • Yes. They are very good at collecting money.

    • William Lorentz says:

      Marie-Louise, as mentioned in the article the foundation has to be good. Without that ‘green’ you can do absolutely nothing for anyone and as is the case even in my municipality, it is the responsibility of the greater community to contribute towards that greater good.
      I think the point highlighted about collecting money and therefore having a budget, is spending it wisely and the case of the accident at that crossing is a small example of how minding the pennies leads to many things and speaks to good financial controls leads to good governance, less wasteful expenditure and in turn better service delivery.
      In all, good on you Saldanah bay, and your team, and yes Marie-Louise it starts with collecting 😉

  • Shafiq Morton says:

    Municipal delivery is a South African question, not a political one. It transcends the puerile, self serving pettiness of party politics It’s a question of being in service to people, people not being in service to you.
    Once you realise that it’s much easier to focus.

    • Michael Brand says:

      Agree.

    • Martin Neethling says:

      It’s fundamentally a political one. The absence of municipal services occurs when the ‘self serving pettiness of party politics’ gets in the way – think Johannesburg or Gqeberha. Services are delivered when the political party in charge realises that their job is indeed public service, sets aside the ‘pettiness’, and does the actual hard work. I suggest that both readers and voters are keenly interested in which parties, through their representatives, think and behaves like this.

  • Robert Douglas says:

    To give people hope in these desperate times where the National leadership is seemingly disinterested in playing a responsible role , the work done by others like DM in showing where good practices care being followed can act as a beacon of hope to the rest of us out there ,who are on board this rudderless ship in rough seas as it heads towards the rocks ! Appeal to the innate honesty of many out there who have info on further examples of good work being done or perhaps reporting & revealing where corruption is taking place . Good citizens should know that they have a secure outlet at the DM where their names will be treated with full confidentiality.

    • Muriel Hau Yoon says:

      I’d like to know how the Saldanha Bay Mayor manages to dodge being unseated by puerile ‘no confidence votes’ from opportunistic political parties.

  • James Harrison says:

    Good to hear some of the details – even more would be better still. But you need to mention that it is a DA led municipality. That is relevant.

  • David Mitchley says:

    Once again this article shows the bias that DM has towards the DA. Why is it not mentioned that the DA runs the SBM?
    Clearly would have been mentioned if this article was about rampant corruption at the SBM.

  • Andrew W says:

    Quite something when we celebrate public servants doing their jobs with a level of competence. This should be the norm, not the exception. The fact that it is the DA is important. This cannot be bias, these are facts. Not a single working example from the majority party. cadres kill everything they touch. When people in your business start calling each other my leader and comrade in meetings, know your business is in deep trouble. Cadres coming to the private sector near you.

  • Gordon Laing says:

    Hi. The paragraph that reads:
    “In a separate report, the auditor-general’s 2021/22 municipal audit outcomes shows that over the past 10 years, SBM was twice listed as “unqualified with findings” in 2013/14 and 2017/18. It received clean audits (unqualified with no findings) in the other eight years.” does not match the graph which shows 3 years that are “unqualified with findings” – as 2012/2013 is also shown. Either the graph is incorrect or the statement is.
    Suggest that this be checked.

  • William Dryden says:

    While reading this article, I was thinking that it is a DA run municipality, and I was correct, amazing that the EFF and the ANC haven’t tried a motion of no confidence? Probably it’s because the Municipality is so small there isn’t a big enough piggy bank to plunder.

  • DANIEL VOLSCHENK says:

    Is it co-incidence that both Municipalities at the top are run by the DA..?? SBM and Midvaal…? Or is it because they employ COMPETENT people with experience in their job description..??

  • Tandolwethu Mjoli says:

    After reading the comments here , it’s safe to say the single largest obstacle to the DA growing its support base, are it’s insufferable supporters. When there are articles about the WC being the gangsterism capital of the country , there isn’t a single DA supporter in the comments going to these lengths to highlight that it’s a DA run city. It’s pathetic how selective and desperate to look good DA people are. Let SBM have it’s moment to shine without making it about yourselves.

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