The eThekwini Municipality could not give a straight answer when asked how it charged ratepayers for six kilolitres of water that they were asked to now pay for after a technical error occurred on the city’s side.
On two occasions, IOL asked what method was used to calculate the amount that appeared in the December utility bill for the 49,000 affected residents across the city.
On both occasions, eThekwini spokesperson Gugu Sisilana deflected and brought up previous statements made about the free water saga, which had nothing to do with the question.
If the municipality is recovering funds for 6 kilolitres a month over a three year period, [2020-2023] how is it possible that the affected residents were charged different rates for the same amount of water, IOL asked.
The first time, Sisilana brought up some of the outcomes from the meeting between the eThekwini Ratepayers' Protest Movement (EPRM) and the City Council, which were previously reported on.
EPRM, an amalgamation of various ratepayer associations, has been assisting residents in filing a dispute against the bill and negotiating with the City on behalf of the disgruntled residents, many of whom are pensioners.
The second time IOL asked how they calculated the bills she said:
“There was a technical error which resulted in 6kl of free basic water which was incorrectly applied to consumers whose properties were above the R250,000 threshold. The billing adjustment and technical error affect less than 10% of the ratepayers in the city.”
The reasoning the municipality gave for clawing back these funds was due to a technical error that allowed people with homes valued at R250,000 or under to receive six kilolitres of water free every month.
The municipality continued to give away free water for years without realising that property values had increased and that those who once qualified for free water no longer met the criteria.
It is now recovering the money for the six kilolitres for each month over three years, from 2020 to 2023.
Despite receiving varying amounts indicated on their bills, every resident affected by the technical glitch was mandated to pay the same water fee.
Senju Govender, a pensioner living in Broadlands, north of Durban, was among the 49,000 affected ratepayers. She raised concerns about the municipality's billing process regarding the mistakenly supplied free water. Govender, along with other residents in her complex, received identical bills reflecting varying amounts, prompting her to question the municipality's billing accuracy for the inadvertently provided water.
She said paying the amount of R180 per month to settle the debt, as negotiated upon, was not a problem, but the manner in which the City handled the situation was.
“I understand that we have to pay, but how they went about it with no prior warnings or communication does seem like something is off.
“It honestly seems like someone figured out a loophole to make money off the people and now they are taking it from us. When you really look at it, the reasons they gave did not make sense.
“On my bill, my property is valued at way over R250,000, but they still gave (me) free water. It’s not like they don’t know the market or relatable value of the property; even if it’s off a bit, they have it on the bill,” Govender said.
Denise Bonnelle, another one of the 49,000 affected residents, said she feels like a “sitting duck”.
City manager Musa Mbhele apologised to residents for the surprise bill, as errors happen in such a large operation.
“We always strive to deliver superior services to residents. However, it must be acknowledged that the municipality deals with over 550,000 bills every month and such errors may occur,” Mbhele said in a joint statement with EPRM after their meeting this week.