Cash-strapped City Hall to aggressively pursue rates & taxes defaulters

The content originally appeared on: INews Guyana
Finance Committee Chairman Lelon Saul with a copy of the City Council’s 2024 Budget at Wednesday’s hearing

The cash-strapped Georgetown Mayor and City Council on Wednesday passed a whopping $3.297 billion budget for 2024, which it intends to fund by revenue collection with a specific focus of going after delinquent rates and taxpayers.

Under the theme, “Building a green, resilient, safe and sustainable city,” the 2024 budget was presented by Chairman of the Council’s Finance Committee, Lelon Saul, who gave a review of the 2023 financial year before outlining how City Hall plans to finance this year’s multi-billion-dollar budget.

According to Saul, rates and taxes is the “greatest revenue earner” for the Council.“The largest revenue earner [in 2024] will be from rates and taxes – $2.2 billion [estimated to be earned this year],” he explained.

This, according to Saul, is based on trends from last year when rates and taxes was the top revenue earner. However, with only about 46 per cent property owners paying their rates and taxes in 2023, the City Council intends to take several initiatives to change this.

The finance committee chairman disclosed that the Council will focus on aggressively pursuing defaulters and delinquent ratepayers.

Consequently, the Council will implement the remedies under Section 220 of Chapter 28:01 of the Municipal and District Council Act to recover the rates owed. The following rate recovery measures will be implemented: as a civil debt, irrespective of the amount owed, under the Summary Jurisdiction (Petty Debt Act), applicable to ratepayers owing less than $100,000; and by distraint warrant on movable property of the person liable, whether such movable property is situated on the property in respect of which the rates are due or elsewhere.

Additionally, the council plans to improve the effectiveness of its Debt Recovery Unit by hiring and training more staff members as well as issue Demand Notices more frequently bolstered by a strong public relations programme to remind ratepayers of their responsibility.

Moreover, the Council is also looking to monetise several assets to generate more revenues. “We have a lot of idle assets and we want to make those assets earn money. And so in 2024, we hope to embark on that process. It will be a transparent process,” he stated.

The City Council will further work with the Valuation Office to make necessary adjustments to the rates charged on some properties and create new valuation list for areas not listed in the city.

Seizure of properties

However, during the deliberation session following Saul’s presentation, PPP/C Councillor Steven Jacobs raised a number of concerns about the Council’s 2024 Budget including the fact that there are provisions that speaks to the seizure of properties of default rates and taxpayers.

“The one that [Saul] failed to mention but it’s in the document – and if we’re approving it today, this will stand – where he’s basically telling the citizens that we’ll move to seizure of their properties to recover Council’s rates and taxes,” Jacobs highlighted.

According to the Councillor, “A break-even budget is not something that is possible or are we trying to save face and look good for the cameras… We need to take a better approach to manning the city and it’s a hand-on approach.”

In addition to this, PPP/C representatives on the City Council also raised objections about the attainability of the Budget, which they highlighted was presented midyear.

“My concern is that we’re halfway through the year and many of the key assumptions that are in the budget that provides for increased revenue collection – halfway through the year – have not been implemented or begun to be implemented… My concern is whether the figure here [in the budget] are attainable at all…,” Councillor Alfonso De Armas.

Another PPP/C Councillor, Don Singh, went onto say, “We’re presenting a budget on June 5 with lofty goals and ideas on how we get to where we want to go… another budget [estimate] is due on November 15… We don’t know what we’ve spent in this first six months so we don’t know how much is left of these estimates to spend over the next five months… For me, it’s unrealistic because we’re now left with six months in the year.”

Defending lateness

In response, Georgetown Mayor, Alfred Mentore, defended the lateness of the Budget, citing several numbers of administrative issues including staffing troubles. The City’s Budget is usually presented in March.

“We had to second somebody from another department to get the Budget going, and it was a number of other things that led to that process that why we missed March, missed April and we’re now at June… And then we had the projection issue…not having all the actual spending of 2023 and up to third quarter. Those are things that caused this thing to be delayed,” Mentore stated.

Nevertheless, despite the concerns raised about the City’s spending, the Budget 2024 was eventually passed with a commitment by the Council to improve transparency and accountability in the future.

“The Council in 2024 will continue to improve transparency, accountability, delivery of core municipal services, revenue collection and stakeholder management… As I speak we are in the process of getting our accounts audited, and that was not done [before] and this Council, would have made a conscious decision that we need to be transparent and accountable, and we will do it. And that will become the norm of this Council – to account to the citizens of this city and to lead when it comes to transparency and accountability,” Saul posited.