Breaking code of silence on municipal bill

Nigel Brooker’s case is proof that call centre agents at the municipality (and at many other organisations) don’t think beyond the script or talk to each other.

The Durbanville resident said that on May 23 2019 he received a demand for R12 654.93 for a property he used to own in Boston, Bellville, and which he sold in 2006.

“Despite numerous emails to the City of Cape Town, including to mayor Dan Plato, no one was willing (or able) to explain what this was for. Without any further communication I was informed that the account balance was zero: then the R12 654.93 was added to the bill for my property in Kenridge. Further emails requested an explanation, but none was provided. On January 9 (2020) I received a threatening letter to say that if I don’t pay this unexplained amount I will be blocked from buying pre-paid electricity.

“When I telephoned the call centre I spoke to Azona, a helpful young woman, but the call was taking a long time and as it is a premium number I was running out of money. She said she would call me back. She did, twice, but there was no sound. I then went to the Bellville municipal office where they told me that Azona had logged the calls and the demand was for unpaid electricity at the Boston property.

“I went to the electricity department in Bloemhof and discovered that an arrears amount had been added after the rates certificate was issued in 2018.

“All this could have been avoided and I would have paid the bill if they had told me what it was for. Instead they behaved like a secret society arrogantly issuing bills and issuing threats. This is no way to treat ratepayers,” Mr Brooker said.

“Adding unexplained charges to my municipal bill (for the Kenridge property) seems like fraud.”

But there was no coherent response from the call centre: “Dear Nigel Brooker Thank you for writing to the City of Cape Town and bringing this matter to our attention. We apologise for the delay in our response and any inconvenience this may have caused. Please note that a contract account number is finalised and that was done on February 14 2018, and there is a nil balance on the account.”

Perhaps on the old rates bill but the R12 654.93 was debited to Mr Brooker’s Kenridge home.

Mr Brooker’s quest to get answers to his questions started as far back as May 24 last year after he received a demand from TransUnion dated April 20 (2019) which was posted to him by the “new” owner of the Boston property.

Mr Brooker told the call centre he had to pay a sizeable deposit for a three-month advance on rates and services. “I see no sign of this having been returned and as far as I am concerned, you probably still owe me the return of the three-month deposit you demanded before issuing the rates clearance certificate. I need to understand what has happened and if this results in legal action, I will hold you responsible for any legal costs I have to pay to defend myself. The easy way to settle this is to bill the appropriate person for the rates and explain to me, why I am being held responsible for rates after transfer? And, where did you send these bills that you have told your collection agency you have sent?”

G. Loubser from the customer relations department told him, “Your request has been sent to the relevant department please note that a request or query of this nature can take up to five working days to complete. If your request is not answered or query is not resolved within the stipulated time frame, please contact our call centre and quote your reference number.”

The other replies from
F Mabuya and N Saki couldn’t shed any light on the matter either.

That’s when Mr Brooker asked me if could break the code of silence.

Phindile Maxiti, mayco member for energy and climate change, said that an adjustment loaded on the prepaid meter (R10 198.91) was partially paid off via the prepaid purchases and the balance was paid with the transfer of the property.

“The item that Mr Brooker is querying is an adjustment account that was created and issued on July 23 2015 for a faulty credit meter. This account was never raised against Mr Brooker’s account and has been in the system since then without any follow-up from the department. “As such, the debt has prescribed (is old) and the City will have it reversed,” said Mr Maxiti.

The answer came too late for Mr Brooker. “After more than a year of unspecified demands and eventually threats to block me from buying electricity there is an explanation.

“I still don’t know yet if this is real or yet another delaying tactic. Because they threatened to cut me off immediately, I paid
R13 000 into my municipal account on January 10. I am waiting for the next account to see if it will now show me in credit. History predicts that the City will simply swallow this against the amount they say they have written off.

“Whatever the situation, thank you. You have revealed what has been their closely guarded secret.”

Mr Brooker’s bill (January/February) showed that the City did not reverse the charges.

They are also adding interest charges on what they’re claiming.

“They have accepted the
R13 000 that I paid and used it to reduce the arrears that I don’t owe,” Mr Brooker said.

Mr Maxiti said Mr Brooker’s old rates account was credited. However, he can visit any of the City’s walk-in centres “to apply for either a transfer to his new rates account or for a refund”.

“Confusion reigned” at the Bellville office, when Mr Brooker went to ask for his refund.

“The clerk said she could reverse the charges. But when she tried she couldn’t.

“After she had a long discussion with her supervisor I had to sign a form to expedite a refund which could take another three months,” Mr Brooker said.

I wonder what Mr Maxiti would do if he were in Mr Brooker’s shoes.