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Monday Aug 07, 2017

Durban woman sells home to pay council

Desperate Durban residents receiving massive utility bills are selling goods and property to stay connected.

But, according to eThekwini Municipality's credit control and debt collection policy, if they lodge a written dispute instead of simply verbally querying the excessive amount, they may not have to pay the outstanding amount.

For some residents, it is too late. A single mother of three, who did not wish to be named for fear of a backlash from the city, has sold her house to cover her arrears of more than R130000.

"I started getting very big bills of over R5 000 which I could not pay, so I was disconnected. I raised R20 000 in cash and went to the municipality in an effort to make a payment and try to organise a payment plan so we could be reconnected. But the lady there said 'we are not a bank'. I walked out of there in tears.

"There is just so much interest on the arrears and I had to take time off work to sort this out, but you are sent from pillar to post and no one will help you.

"After that, I put my house on the market which was recently sold. I lived in my house for 25 years and now we have to start from scratch. I have to find somewhere to stay," she said.

Bluff resident Dawn Pratt has spent this week selling her goods online, including her treasured Royal Doulton china, to settle her latest municipal account of more than R9 000.

"I got my rates and I was shocked. This is much higher than our normal amount," she said.

Threatened with disconnection, Pratt contacted the municipality and was told she had to pay R1900 immediately.

When she pleaded for leniency, the collections official reduced the amount to R815 and told her the outstanding amount could be paid over 24 months. Such an amount will also attract interest.

"To raise the money, I had to sell some of my Royal Doulton mugs which I got many years ago from a special friend. But I have made an extra payment. We always pay our bills on time," she said.

Another Durban resident, who also did not want to be named, said the city's estimated readings were much higher than they should be.

"Their estimations are wrong. I do my reading every month and take a photo and send it to them, but they are still estimating. My account has gone up by R1 000. Their estimates are excessive. It's insanity," he said, adding that his geyser was on a timer and their taps have had water restrictors since the drought.

"Yet, we have not seen our water charges go down. They are ripping us off," he said.

Going the route of officially filing a written "dispute" with the council over the bills may save residents much heartache.

According to the municipality's credit control and debt collection policy, a "query" is not regarded as a dispute.

"A query is a verbal enquiry, whereas a dispute must be in writing and lodged with the relevant municipal department or section," states the policy.

Lodging a dispute results in the resident only paying an amount determined by the average of three monthly bills. The balance is the amount in dispute.

Most residents who had inflated bills said they had been advised to make a "payment plan" to pay the full amount reflected on the bill to avoid being cut off.

eThekwini Municipality spokeswoman Tozi Mthethwa said: "Customers are not expected to pay the amounts in dispute if they follow the correct procedure of logging a dispute with the city, which should be in writing.

"Once the dispute is confirmed, the charge in question is excluded from the collection process."

This process is vastly different from merely making an enquiry with a consultant as to why a bill reflected an inflated amount.

When further clarity was requested on the process for lodging a dispute, Mthethwa said the processes outlined in the city's credit control and debt collection policy should be followed.

This includes submitting a written letter with the reasons for the dispute within 21 days of the account. After 21 days, it would be treated as an enquiry. The resident must provide the official with the account alleged to be in dispute, which includes incorrect readings, misallocation of payments, incorrect tariffs charged and incorrect property values used and any other relevant information that may be required.

"The dispute must relate to a specific amount on the account and amounts not in dispute must be paid in full. If the amounts not in dispute remain unpaid, services may be disconnected.

"Should any dispute arise with respect to the amount owing, the debtor will continue to make regular payments based on the average charges for the preceding three months prior to the dispute, plus interest where applicable," read the policy.

The policy says the official has to register the dispute and take reasonable steps to ensure that the dispute or enquiry is addressed within a reasonable period, and inform the resident, in writing, of the findings.

"At the end, the resident's account will be credited with any amount overpaid, or charged for the amounts they are found to be liable for.

"We deal with an excess of a million bills per month. The few that have deemed to be inaccurate could be a result of human error on readings," said Mthethwa.

Head of revenue at the city, Peet du Plessis, last week urged residents to check their bills.

After the statement was posted on the city's Facebook page last week, dozens of residents took the opportunity to lament their high bills.

One resident said: "We get no replies from e-mailing revline, and in most cases get a notification that the mail box is full.

"Phoning and dealing with incompetent staff is a waste of time.

"Receiving a R17 500 electricity bill (average a month is R1 800) and then get told by your staff I must pay the full bill otherwise I will have my electricity cut?

"This was all due to an incorrect meter reading by your subcontractors who, I might add, only read my meter twice in 12 months.

"After numerous calls, etc, I found your meter department and was told your new billing system can't process credits and this has to be done manually. Useless to say the least."

Another resident wrote: "When we do receive an exorbitant bill we are forced to pay the amount as per the bill.

"Failing which, we are threatened with our electricity being disconnected.

"When we go to the payment centre in Phoenix to query, we are told that we have to pay the amount or maybe enter into a payment plan. "I can't understand why our bill is being charged at 200% or more than the previous months."

Ward councillor Heinz de Boer said he often saw and heard of people left in tears, reeling from unexplained high utility bills.

"Over the past few months I've received countless queries about high bills.

"I've spoken to staff who work on the Revenue Management System, and they are very frustrated with the system that throws out funny figures that are then reflected on the bills.

"The system is a piece of junk," he said.

If customers need to query bills they can do any of the following:

  • Phone the Call Centre on 031 324 5000.

  • Visit their local Sizakala Centre.

  • Send an e-mail to revline-AT- durban.gov.za

  • Report complaints to the Supervisor.

  • Ask to speak to the relevant manager, or request an appointment.

    Electricity is read once every three months and water readings are done monthly. There are instances when readings are not done on time if there is no entry to the property. Arrangements are therefore made with the customer concerned.

    Be vigilant to avoid falling prey to criminals posing as municipal employees. Any municipal representative will have an ID tag with a photograph, ID or employee number with the municipal logo.

    Residents can submit their electricity readings monthly to the department by e-mailing custocare@elec.durban.gov-DOT-za with their meter number and reading, or SMSing the same details to 083 7000 819.

    How to read the bill: eThekwini Municipality

    The format (as of middle of 2016) of the city's revenue bill consists of two segments, the summary and the detailed invoice.

    The first part of the invoice includes the summary of the bill and it appears on the first page. This is the section that will be submitted to South African Revenue Services as a tax invoice.

    The second part of the new Revenue Management System bill consists of the detailed charges and is displayed in the following order:

  • Rates charges on property: Here you would find the property market value, any reduction approved by council or by legislation, as well as the tariff for the specific category to which the property resonates.

  • Water consumption charges.

  • Charges for sewerage and sanitation.

  • Electricity consumption charges.

  • Refuse collection charges.

    Municipal staff will assist residents and have undergone training to efficiently assist the public during the changeover. The municipality is committed to providing efficient service to all residents and will continue openly engaging with ratepayers.

    (Taken from the Metro Ezasegagasini newsletter, 5-18 August 2016, and supplied by the eThekwini Municipality)

    The Independent on Saturday

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