The eThekwini Municipality’s conduct in handling the latest water billing saga - which saw them make technical blunders causing it to lose millions in revenue - has been described as strange by former municipal manager Michael Sutcliffe.
In December, about 49,000 Durban ratepayers received adjusted utility bills which showed they were liable to pay between R2,000 to R7,000 for water and sanitation back charges for three financial years, from 2020 to 2023.
The affected residents were given free water on the premises that their homes were valued at R250,000 or lower, as per the City’s indigent policy, but an error in the system made it possible for people outside the criteria to receive the free water.
City Manager Musa Mbhele apologised to residents and said the municipality made a technical error and had to recover the funds it lost during the three year period.
During an interview with IOL, Sutcliffe offered insight, explaining that when such an error was committed, the city had to communicate speedily and transparently with affected ratepayers.
Sutcliffe said mistakes happen all the time, especially within a large computerised system.
“If this was an isolated incident where only a couple residents were affected then there’s no need. But if it was a large-scale event that affected people throughout the City, then there should have been some form of notice or communication to those specific people.
“What surprised me was that it was the public almost raising awareness about the situation rather than there being some sort of communication.
“I think the community is raising a serious concern if they are talking about not receiving any form of communication,” Sutcliffe told IOL on Saturday.
Residents - through ratepayer associations, don’t believe they should pay for the municipality’s blunder.
After receiving the bills, the municipality and the eThekwini Ratepayers Protest Movement came to an agreement and settled some aspects of the billing issue such as signing an acknowledgement of debt and paying R180 per month for the free water.
During a meeting between the EPRM and officials from the Department of Water and Sanitation, it was found that the Auditor General flagged the error and alerted the municipality around June/July, according to Ian Govender from the DWS Business Unit.
This effectively means the City had around four to five months to formulate a notice or warning to the affected ratepayers about the upcoming bill, but did not.
Broadlands pensioner Senju Govender, 62, who is one of the 49,000 affected by the City’s error, said she did not have a problem paying the R180, but did have a problem with how the City handled the matter.
“I don’t mind paying the bill. EPRM engaged with the City, and they got that deal to pay R180 per month. 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.
“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.
“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.
IOL has asked the Municipality why it did not send any prior communication and is awaiting their comment.