Jitters over pending bills as governors begin term

Controller of Budget Margaret Nyakang'o. [David Njaaga, Standard]

The biggest fear of a contractor owed by a county government is perhaps not being paid at the end of a financial year. This fear intensifies when a new governor comes into office.

It is even worse for them when the transition happens at a time the contractor’s invoice to the county government is still listed under ineligible bills. According to a March 2022 Controller of Budget report, the 47 county governments had pending bills amounting to Sh107 billion, whose eligibility could not be ascertained by then.

Such pending bills have been a thorny issue to the counties since the inception of devolution in 2013 such that the terms eligible and ineligible bills continue to surface in their audit reports.

Most of the county governors elected in the August 9 General Election will be sworn in tomorrow. Their coming into office will be a make or break moment for many unpaid contractors. New governors as seen after the 2017 elections are likely to comb through the pending bills to establish their eligibility before approving their payment. The process can take ages. 

In Nakuru, outgoing governor Lee Kinyanjui hired a firm to audit some Sh3 billion pending bills accrued from the previous administration and the defunct municipality.

“We had serious problems in the first transition in 2017. Most governors were skeptical about the pending bills. Contractors had to be taken through a lot of auditing,” said Eng Bernard Mutahi. Mutahi, who is the chairperson for South Rift Contractors Association, says most contractors face a difficult time during the transition period as new county governments shape up.

“Some governors take time to fully constitute their governments and initiate payments for work done while they were not in the office,” said Mutahi.

He cited contractors engaged by the county government of Nakuru as some of the stakeholders who suffered the brunt of the audit as the process dragged on. “It took a year for the audit and payments to be effected. Some 90 per cent were settled but the delay left many frustrated. A million shillings paid today is not the same when it is paid next year,” he added.

Contractors who suffer the most, according to the chairman, are those who deliver consumables whose audit is complicated to ascertain whether the goods and services were delivered.

“Auditing is good but can be unfair. Auditing a murram road can discredit a genuine contractor whose job may have been damaged through usage or weather elements,” he said.

Mutahi said some county chiefs in their rush to hunt for votes flout various procedures which often leave involved contractors struggling to get their pay. “During a political season, it is common for governors to launch projects before they can even pay for them. This makes their successors skeptical when contractors make their claims thereafter,” he said.

He said the outgoing regimes are likely to have left huge unpaid bills owing to delays by the National Treasury. “The exchequer released money to the counties late which affected payments to contractors. Most departments in Nakuru had pending bills of between 20 and 40 percent by election date,” he said.

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He said youth, women, and persons living with a disability were denied their rightful share of contracts.

“Upcoming contractors under the special groups didn’t get their deserved 30 per cent of the tenders. Their only prayer to the new governors is for a change in attitude towards them,” said Mutahi.