I must hasten to reveal that, I have marveled at the way the Freetown City Council has over the past few weeks been handling the issue related to taxation and other forms of revenue generation for the smooth running of the council.
The Local Government Act of 2004 provides a number of ways the councils in the council[in totality 19] could be generating funds for their operations for it is a fact that, it will get to the time when the central government could not be supporting the councils especially in the area of funding.
The Act specifically states that councils could be getting fund from the taxes people pay, the property rate fees to be paid by property owners and even from the fees people pay for doing business in the locality of a council. In fact the act also mandates the councils in the council to be making by-laws for their localities, thus meeting the demands of their areas. So when the Freetown City Council recently enacted a by-law that, nobody should deposit waste along the streets of Freetown, it was seen by many as a move in the right direction.
When the councils were re-introduced by the SLPP Kabbah led government in 2004, it was out of the desire to see a proper and effective governance system in place. And so, when councilors were elected, they were elected with the view of bringing development to the wards they were to represent in council. But the extent to which that occurred could not be discussed for it is true that, the past four years has been a learning process for most councilors.
Also the councils have over the first four years been going through a number of challenges, both political and otherwise. Take the Freetown City Council, for example, when the SLPP was in power, the council used to be starved, allegedly from getting funds in the form of development grants and other funds to council from the central government. As such, the council was seen as one that did not function properly, despite the fact the then Mayor for that council, was also having his own problems. But the coming of Herbert George Williams is believed to have brought some sanity into the running of the council. It is interesting to note that, even within the APC as a party that was in charge of the council prior to them coming into office, they were somehow unable to have absolute control over the then Mayor.
The decision by the current leadership of the council to implement the law to the letter is actually encouraging. Laws are often made but it has always proved difficult to implement such laws. People are not used to tax payment, they are not used to paying for the business which some of them operate in Freetown, not even to mention the fee for their property in the form of property rate. No wonder that even as the current government has put premium on the provision of electricity, people still don’t want to pay their light bills.
So when George Williams introduced the system that failure to pay will lead to legal action has actually yielded dividends. The other day, I was seated at Shell New road when I heard a leady telling her friend that, she had paid eighty thousand Leones for the small tele-centre that she operates. Fine, I said to myself but was however concerned to know how much has been made by the council during this period.
The council must be seen exhibiting some level of transparency to the public. People must be told what has been generated by the council if only the current leadership in the Freetown City Council is to be taken with all seriousness. Governance is all people’s participation and participation in this sense means, informing the citizens on daily happening, with particular reference to the income and expenditure of the council.
The running of the councils during the first four years was witnessed more with corruption allegations. A case in point being the council in Pujehun, where the then council chairman, Alhaji Nasiru Deen Magona was alleged to have embezzled millions of Leones meant for seed rice. And in allegedly trying to buy favor from the current government and also in an attempt to evade justice, he declared his support for the APC. However, it is a wait and see policy if the APC government is going to allow such a mess to continue unabated. Magona cannot for any reason be more APC than people like Edward Turay and others.
In fact even the erstwhile chairman in the Waterloo Council, Alieu Badara Mansaray was reported to have crossed over to the SLPP, then in governance because, he was looking out for protection since he too was said to have been involved in some corrupt practices in the council. The same thing happened in Makeni where the City Council Mayor was removed from office on corruption allegations. It was also in Makeni where women were coerced to pay their taxes and as a matter of fact, women were even handcuffed for refusing to pay tax in Makeni. But the council is yet to tell people what was the outcome of that exercise. Least I forget, in the Bonthe Municipal Council, none existing council staffs were receiving salary and this was tantamount to corruption and so when Peter Munda Baker took over as the Chief Administrator, he had to put a stop to that.
What am actually trying to portray to you is that, the first four years of council cannot be seen as a total success for the councils. Corruption and poor performance by the councils were the order of the day. Some councilors could not even contribute to the deliberations on councils, and a case in point being the council in Waterloo. People will be encouraged to pay continually their taxes and other revenues to councils when the Freetown City and perhaps, all other councils in the country make themselves accountable to the people. The local government act mandates the councils to make use of notice boards in explaining to the people their financial expenditures and income, and to this end the Freetown City Council is yet to do so.
Looking at the core values of governance, it is but a fact that, accountability, participation and transparency cannot be left alone. During the first phase of the councils, many people were of the opinion that, the councils did not perform and that, council officials only came into the councils to enrich themselves. This is a perception that is hard to change in the minds of the people.
The process of decentralization of state functions to councils is in fact seen as decentralizing corruption to the local level. What ever is said, the fact that, people have got a government much more closer to them must be appreciated but that could only be when those elected to oversee the affairs of the councils conduct themselves in a proper manner. The Freetown City Council must be bold enough to tell the nation the amount that has been generated so far since the operation of forcefully, though a legally correct method of generating funds was stated.
The call on the people of this country to pay tax must be complimented with accountability from the side of our council officials. People are now well prepared to meet their responsibilities especially in the area of tax payment but they must also be accounted to on how such monies are used. Millions must have been gathered by the Freetown City Council and this they must make known to the people. Herbert Williams and his colleagues at the council are now clamoring for the people’s vote and I therefore implore on them to do the people’s expectations.
Failure by the council to do so will lead to unwarranted speculations from the general public. It was two days ago that somebody said, the monies that the Freetown City Council has collected are now being used by the APC government to campaign for the local council elections and in preventing such rumors to continue flying, the council must be open and tell the people of Freetown what has been generated. So, it is over to you Mr. George Herbert Williams to give account to the people on what has been made so far since the exercise began months back. John Baimba Sesay