Judge raps municipality for ignoring consumer’s plea

Published Jun 26, 2024


A judge had harsh words for the Buffalo City Municipality in East London, for ignoring a ratepayer’s plea to probe her excessive water billing for over a year.

The high court sitting in East London found the municipality had failed abysmally to meet its constitutional and legal obligations to the applicant.

Judge Belinda Hartle said Octavia Ngceke had clearly been traumatised by the excessive billing for almost three years. Ngceke had tried to sort out the problem with the municipality for over a year.

The municipality had failed to respond to her pleas to probe the excessive billing, forcing the desperate Ngceke to turn to the court to force it to do its job.

Judge Hartle said: “If a consumer cannot under the constraints of the policy (credit control policy) approach a municipal official at a counter and have his/her queries summarily dealt with or concerns allayed, they must at least be entitled to legitimately expect fair administrative procedures by accountable local government in accordance with the applicable policy in force at the time.”

Ngceke asked for an order directing the municipality to comply with its enquiries and appeal procedure set forth in its credit control policy, pursuant to her having lodged a dispute with it regarding the calculation of outstanding balances purportedly due by her.

The judge noted that, “Although the formal dispute was lodged with the municipality in May last year, it remains unresolved with the municipality not even having acknowledged receipt thereof, let alone having administratively dealt with the substance of it.

“The municipality does not deny that it had been “tardy” in dealing with the applicant’s complaint but lays the blame for this squarely at her door. This is on the basis that she failed to follow certain processes prescribed in the policy regarding what to do when a consumer of municipal services is beleaguered by a water leak that might be contributing to excessive water consumption charges.“

It argued that Ngceke had failed to exhaust internal remedies prescribed by the Local Government Municipal Systems Act, before turning to the court.

But Judge Hartle noted: “Interestingly it offers no solution to the formal complaint. Its counsel has sought to justify its opposition of the application on the basis that the municipality is well within its rights to resist applications lodged pre-maturely and without exhausting internal remedies available, thereby preventing ‘opportunistic litigation and saving municipal resources which remain scarce.’”

Ngceke’s problems started in June 2021 when she received a statement of R29 101.70 for water usage at her property for the preceding seven months.

She felt that the municipality must have made a mistake in its calculations. Upon the advice from the municipality, she appointed a plumber to assess her property for leakages. He found that there was no water leak in the house or within her yard, and said the problem was most probably a leak on the side of the municipality due to an old pipe.

The municipal pipe had subsequently cracked, yet Ngceke replaced it at her own cost. She subsequently sent a report from her plumber to the municipality and told them the pipe was probably the cause for her excessive water bill.

This fell on deaf ears and in May last year, Ngceke’s attorneys addressed a formal dispute - delivered by hand - to the municipality on her behalf, marked for the attention of both the chief financial officer and the municipal manager. This too fell on deaf ears.

Judge Hartle said the policy that the municipality had relied on, did not provide for a situation where the tardiness or neglect came from the municipality. “This in effect means that a consumer invoking the dispute procedure is up a creek without a paddle as it were if the CFO does not respond to the enquiry within the more than ample sixty days provided for in the policy.”

She ordered the municipality to respond appropriately to the applicant’s dispute in writing within 10 days.

Pretoria News