South Africa News

City of Joburg dragged to court over excessive billing after R42K was debited from homeowner’s account

The City of Johannesburg (COJ) has been interdicted from disconnecting water and electricity at Sharise Ackerman’s house. This was after Ackerman took the utility provider to task over excessive billing.

The Illovo homeowner has been in a turbulent dispute with the City since March 2017 regarding excessive billing in her property.

According to statistics relied on by Ackerman, the average water consumption in residential households similar to that of hers, use 300 litres per person on a day, however, the average rate of consumption for which she is being billed was at least 3,303 litres per day.

Her property has three adults and one child.

She said she pays the municipality R12,000 to R14,000 every month which she considers to be more than adequate for the utilities consumed at her home.

Between January 2019 and August 2022, she paid over R844,000 to the municipality and she contends it was reasonable costs for electricity and water utilized on her property.

The trigger for lodging a dispute with the City came after R31,000 was debited from her account on March 9, 2017 the amount was followed by a further debit of R11,000 on March 12, 2017.

Through her husband who is an attorney, she sent a letter seeking an explanation for the debits and the City replied that it would urgently investigate the matter and revert.

As she was still in loggerheads with the City over the debits, in August 2018 she received two invoices for differing amounts one for R30,138 and the other for R30, 861 and she was subsequently sent a pre-termination notice.

She continued to have an be exchange with the City without any success.

In January 2020, she was informed that her account was owing over R96,000 and she was again facing the threat of disconnection.

Having secured no resolution of the matter, Ackerman secured help from an attorney, Luke Mouyis, who had prior experience with interacting with the City in similar matters.

Mouyis established that there was an error in the billing system used by the City. Another feature unearthed was that attempts to reconcile the electricity accounts resulted in ‘lump billing’ against Ackerman’s account.

It was also discovered she was being billed based on readings from three different meters, with a response from the City saying that one of the electrical meters had burnt out and Ackerman failed to report this to the authorities.

Ackerman denied this and said if the meter had burnt out, as suggested by the City, it had no impact on the supply to her home.

In addition, Ackerman ascertained that the City was billing her based on meter readings from an incorrect water meter. She said that a neighbouring property’s usage was being billed as hers. Her attorney brought this to the City’s attention, instead, the City continued to demand the amounts she had been billed.

She approached the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg in March 2022 in an effort to interdict the City from disconnecting services to her property.

She argued that the amounts she was charged were due to inaccurate billing based on estimates and double charges.

Moreover, she wanted the high court to compel the City to correct her municipal account and, in the course of that process, to provide an explanation to her for any corrections or reversals that may be effected.

Ackerman provided the court with a detailed ‘dispute chronology’ where each dispute she logged with the City had dates, written proof of the dispute, and the responses or lack thereof. In some instances, the City responded by saying it compiled invoices based on estimates and that actual readings would be rendered in due course.

In contrast to Ackerman’s the frustration, the municipality maintained that it has rendered accurate invoices based on actual readings of the rate of consumption of electricity and water, and having utilised its services.

As of August 2022, the City contends that the Ackerman owed them over R100,000 and as a service provider, they had to resort to the disconnection of the services to her property in accordance with its credit control by-laws.

Furthermore, the municipality said Ackerman has always been billed on the actual reading of the meter. To substantiate their argument, the City relied on five selected invoices over the disputed period of five years from July 2017 to August 2022.

However, Ackerman provided 13 invoices which showed that the City had actually invoiced her based on estimated consumption.

The City’s argument was also contradicted by Bongani Nkosi from its billing department, where in an email directed to Ackerman on June 19 2017 he said, ‘‘according to the billing department we have billed on estimated readings for meter number 003582’’.

Judge Mahendra Chetty said the City’s approach towards Ackerman was as if it were dealing with a delinquent consumer whereas she was not.

“Her evidence under oath that she continues to pay, on a monthly basis what she contends is a fair and reasonable amount based on what she consumes, remains uncontested. Her conduct is not that of someone seeking to avoid paying for services,” the judge said.

Judge Chetty said Ackerman’s only purpose was trying to ensure that she is accurately billed for what she consumes in her home.

“The City’s response was one of placing obstacles in the path of resolving the dispute…the approach of the City has been anything but one which fosters a spirit of co-operation.

“…It cannot be accepted that a resident should have to complain for five years regarding a proper explanation for the exorbitant costs levied against her account, all the while being under threat of disconnection,” judge Chetty added.

As a result, judge Chetty interdicted the City from disconnecting services at Ackerman’s property.

The City has also been ordered to furnish Ackerman with a detailed explanation to her queries in respect of the water and electricity charges levied against the property.

The reasons referred must be furnished to Ackerman’s attorney within 30 days and she also has 30 days to respond.

Pending the final resolution of the dispute, Ackerman has to continue paying R12,000 for municipal services.

Judge Chetty said Ackerman was compelled to approach the court after her pleas for intervention fell on deaf ears.

“I see no reason why the City’s conduct should not be sanctioned with a punitive costs order.”

The City was ordered to pay the cost of the application.

-IOL News

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