Zoned out: Joburg billing bungle causes flat panic
The City of Johannesburg's billing system has angry residents in the north queuing for answers
The billing problems in the City of Johannesburg are far from over. At least according to residents in Riviera, north of Johannesburg, who allege they were wrongly billed by the municipality.
According to statements seen by Times Select, from July this year the city “mysteriously” rezoned their block of flats from residential to business, meaning residents were charged commercial rates.
Staying on the same road as former president Thabo Mbeki didn’t spare residents of Mediterranean from receiving incorrect bills from the city.
Alarm bells went off when residents of the block received their first inflated bills for rates and taxes in July.
“We usually paid R500 for our rates and taxes, but in the past three months the city billed us more than R2,000 monthly,” said 27-year-old Kewen van Rensburg, who owns a unit in the block.
Van Rensburg said out of fear of having his services cut, he paid the amount, but knew something was amiss. He then started the process to rectify the error.
“The whole thing is time-consuming, because you have to physically visit the offices and spend between three and four hours there queuing. You can’t call their offices to get the issue solved,” he explained.
He made several trips to the city’s customer service centre, Thuso House in Braamfontein, where he lodged his complaint. He said he also made a further trip to the city’s validation department in the city centre to have his property rezoned back to residential. “It was not an easy exercise and showed me that one needs patience when dealing with such issues,” Van Rensburg said.
Fellow resident Rookaya Bawa had the same experience.
Bawa also received a bill that was quadruple what she usually paid for a flat she owns. The erroneous rezoning was also found to be the culprit.
She said the city had admitted making a mistake by billing her unit as business premises and had undertaken to correct the mistake. But there was a twist.
“I was told that we are still liable to pay for the business rates that we were billed for, even though they admitted that it was a mistake,” Bawa explained.
“Why should we pay for their mistake?”
Times Select spoke to several other residents of the block, all of whom reported the same frustration. Most were pensioners who said they didn’t want their names published for fear of victimisation.
They said their bills also went up three times what they usually paid.
A 68-year-old man said he had made countless trips to municipal offices in Braamfontein and Sandton to have his account rectified, but it had been a fruitless exercise. “It’s like the people in those offices don’t know what they are doing,” the man complained.
“They’ll act as if they are doing something on the computer and say the problem is solved, but when the statement comes, the same problem will be there,” he said.
He applied for a pensioners’ rebate in July at the Braamfontein offices, but after receiving no feedback from the city, he visited the offices in Sandton. They could find no record of his application on the system, he claimed.
“Dealing with officials is a total waste of time,” said the man, who reapplied for the rebate and is still awaiting the outcome.
“My bill is much higher than before and calling them to enquire about my application is impossible, because they never answer their phone. One has to physically walk into their offices.”
Kutlwano Olifant, stakeholder manager in the office of the MMC for group finance and leader of executive business, admitted that the city made a mistake and had erroneously billed some of the residents. She said corrections were being processed and adjustments would be made on the affected accounts. This meant customers would only have to pay the adjusted amount.
She dismissed allegations by residents that the city was trying to make a quick buck out of them.
On the processing of pensioner rebates, Olifant said the city received more than 10,000 applications. “We are currently busy processing these applications, and backdating will be effected for all applicants who applied before September 30 2018.”
Olifant also dismissed allegations that staff at city offices were not clued up on a number of issues.
She said the property was originally zoned commercial. “However, on August 16 the error was identified and the city evaluators changed the category to the correct one, being residential.”
However, Olifant could not explain how the error had occurred.
Responding to claims that staff were unable to help, Olifant said they received relevant training continuously to equip them with the skills to assist customers efficiently.
“The major challenge we have is that some customers do not follow the objection process correctly and fail to provide us with sufficient information or documentation, which becomes a problem when resolving their disputes,” Olifant explained.