Joburg Advocacy Group (JAG): April 2012

Thursday, April 5, 2012

BILLING CRISIS UPDATE



Folks, we continue to receive a lot of complaints from residents with long-standing and unresolved billing disputes. Over the past few days, some have even been in tears because the city is demanding that they make arrangements to pay disputed amounts of as much as R80,000 or face cut-offs.

So just a reminder about two things:

1. To demand payment of an incorrect or disputed amount under threat of any kind is CRIMINAL EXTORTION. If an official demands payment under these circumstances, you have the option of laying a criminal charge against the city at any SAPS station. You'll need to name the Mayor, Parks Tau, and the City Manager, Trevor Fowler, as respondents.

2. If the city cuts your services despite the fact that your account is in dispute and you have a legitimate reference number, IT IS IN VIOLATION OF A HIGH COURT ORDER handed down on 15 December last year (2011). The order was obtained by Schindlers Attorneys (www.schindlers.co.za). Please notify Schindlers in the event of your services being cut even if your account is in dispute.

Also, if you have an unresolved billing dispute, please log a complaint with the PRESIDENTIAL HOTLINE on 17737 - we need the Presidency to get a real idea of the nature and extent of the problem, as well as of the fact that it's not going away. There is also the option of logging your complaint on the independent service delivery web site, Mobilitate.


Finally, for your information, the following is a copy of a letter recently sent to a resident still battling with the same billing issue after two years:

We're so sorry to hear you’re still struggling with your municipal account, but rest assured you’re not alone.  

From our side, we’ve done everything we possibly could to find resolutions to the billing crisis - for both individual residents and residents as a whole. We’ve lobbied every level of government and all of the oversight agencies, including the Human Rights Commission, which didn’t even respond to our many attempts to have this addressed as a rights issue. And, as you know, we’ve been running a very aggressive media and social media campaign for quite some time now, obtaining extensive coverage both at home and abroad.

In fact, we’ve logged well over 1,000 voluntary hours working on this and other issues in a little over 12 months. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that advocacy only works within a system that’s at least notionally functional, which ours clearly isn’t. 

We’re of the opinion that the failure of local government – and the parallel failure of provincial and national government to deal with this failure effectively – now has a momentum of its own, and that very little other than meaningful system change will halt or reverse the process. Without that, we feel our only expectation can be chronic and progressive system failure.

Please let us know if you manage to get your problem sorted out. We agree with you – it’s as much a matter of principle as anything else. There are about 1.3 million account holders in the City of Joburg. If only 8% of those have an average dispute of R5,000, that amounts to R52 million. And, as many individual disputes are much higher, we estimate the amount under dispute to be considerably more than that.

TIPS ON HOW TO HANDLE AN NCC CONCILIATION HEARING



A number of residents who've logged complaints about billing with the National Consumer Commission (NCC) are being asked to attend conciliation hearings. A few have asked us for advice on how to handle these hearings, as the city has legal representation at these, but residents aren't given this option. You may find the following response to one of these queries helpful:

1. Call the NCC in advance and ask what your options for legal representation are. It seems a rather unfair situation if the city has legal representation but you don't. On the other hand, the NCC will probably be acting as your de facto legal representative, but we're not sure about that, so we'd suggest that you check.

2. Write up a summary of your dispute and take a few copies along to the hearing, together with any supporting documentation (e.g. previous municipal bills and Joburg Connect reference numbers) that may be required to prove or illustrate your dispute.

3. Work out as best you can what the current state of your account should be - have as accurate a figure as possible available.

4. If you're in arrears, acknowledge that you're willing to make arrangements to settle any outstanding amount that may be owed IF your bill is accurate and, importantly, VERIFIABLE!

5. Don't be intimidated and don't be forced into making a settlement you're not happy with. Remember, this is a conciliation hearing and you're not obliged to accept the outcome. However, if your bill is rectified and you're able to make arrangements to repay any amount/s that may be outstanding, we'd suggest that you accept this outcome. To take the matter further would require costly civil litigation.