Schemes to avoid paying lights uncovered

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Copy of ST MerilynHoward103 THE STAR Merilyn Howard sold her belongings to pay a huge bill. "It has been going on for years. I just get told there is nothing they can do. I'm about to lose my house," she said. Photo: Bongiwe Mchunu

 

Johannesburg - The billing crisis, which the City of Joburg has been claiming is largely over, is about to take a turn for the worse.

In a shock announcement his weekend, we learnt that city officials have been tampering with residents’ meters to inflate bills, they have been deliberately overbilling and unilaterally, with no consent, rezoning properties for additional rates.

The announcement was made by the Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Pravin Gordhan in his budget vote speech when he said acts of corruption had been uncovered where city officials were colluding with members of the public in a scheme to avoid paying water and electricity bills.

He said major consumers of electricity have also defrauded the city of more than R200 million through illegal connections and false information.

In collusion with city officials, some of these large electricity users are stating that they are using prepaid meters and are, therefore, not billed.

This could be happening in other municipalities as well.

The Star’s Metrowatch has received more than 1 000 e-mails over the past three years from residents complaining of unexpected, inflated bills.

Residents claim their consumption has not changed, that they paid regularly and then were suddenly faced with exaggerated and unexplained bills and threatened with disconnection.

Metrowatch has also received complaints from people that their properties, without explanation, have had their zonings changed from residential to business.

Despite requests over the past three years for an explanation from the city as to why this is happening, Metrowatch has received only standard replies stating the city is addressing the problem of meter readings, but giving no real explanation for why this has happened.

The city has repeatedly stated that since the revenue road map and a plan to resolve the billing crisis began in November 2012, most of the backlog has been resolved.

The DA has now called for a moratorium on cut-offs pending an investigation.

The DA spokesman on revenue, John Mendelsohn, said: “Ward councillors and newspaper consumer protection services have been receiving complaints of implausible electricity and water accounts, which bear no relationship to the actual average monthly consumption of these services.

“There is thus a real possibility that these complainants are the very people whose meter readings are being manipulated in the process of covering up the billing shortfall perpetrated by the fraudsters,” he said.

 

Spokesman Nthatisi Modingoane said the fact that the city has identified a misalignment between the consumption of services and revenue, resulting from the collusion between certain customers and individuals to deliberately avoid payment is a positive sign.

“The city, in collaboration with law enforcement agencies, has implemented a successful operation, which has thus far led to 18 arrests resulting from 48 cases.

“The arrests relate to fraudulent activities, like the manipulation of property valuations and rates, tampering with meters and illegal connections of water and electricity,” he said.

In the past three years, people arrested include officials from development planning, health, the JMPD, revenue, City Power and Joburg Water.

Some, he said, had been suspended and faced disciplinary processes.

Those who resigned while facing charges are being pursued through legal action.

Since the launch of the anonymous anti-corruption tip-off hotline in 2012, the city has seen a dramatic increase in the number of tip-offs from residents which have led to arrests, court convictions and the suspension of suspect employees from different departments.

“The latest 18 arrests are a demonstration that the interventions put in place by the city are starting to pay off,” said Modingoane.

 

He said law enforcement agencies were hard at work with investigations and more arrests are expected.

“Our analysis indicates an improvement in our controls.

“Continuing losses can be attributed to individuals who are committing theft and corruption in Joburg,” he said.

“The city is committed to continue collaborating with law enforcement authorities to ensure those who defraud residents are prosecuted.

“A detailed report will be released in a month’s time on the continuing investigations. The city wishes to thank members of the public and encourage them to continue to call and report irregular incidents through the city’s anti-corruption hotline 0800 002 587, which operates 24 hours including weekends and public holidays,” he said.

Inflated bills

Metrowatch received these five complaints last week.

*Merilyn Howard’s property was revalued as vacant land. Despite three appeals, she was charged R170 000. She was also billed for 28 000kWh instead of 600kWh – a bill of R36 000.

* Grant Bauskin was billed R35 000 in a month for water. He was using R300 a month. He found no leaks. “We’ve tried for three years to sort it out. They say we have to pay or they’ll terminate,” he said.

* John Hammond’s electricity bill is usually R3 000. That has jumped to R6 000.

* Lister Moyo was billed R18 880 and can’t get feedback. “My life is consumed by this dilemma, which I can’t get resolved,” she said.

* Lance Levin said he got a bill for more than R7 500, then R9 000. “We have queried the accounts, but nothing has been done. We have a solar geyser and do not use electrical heaters. We are being exploited and we want answers,” he said.

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