Residents up in arms over huge bills from City of Johannesburg
Long-standing crisis compounds problem of sharply higher property revaluations
When the municipality rates bill of his 83-year-old mother started escalating in April, Benno Erken contacted the Johannesburg city council to negotiate a payment plan for outstanding debt.
He was turned away as the country was under lockdown, which prohibited the city from cutting off services such water and electricity. To his shock, five months later, on September 7, when bitterly cold weather gripped parts of the country, his mother, Dagmar Erken, sat freezing in her Saxonwold home after the council cut off her lights and water.
“What upsets me is that they did cut my mom off during the lockdown. That really threw me. I felt blindsided because I was told not to make an arrangement. I’m hoping that in the next week I will have managed to pay off the R77,000 bill,” Benno Erken said.
Erken’s story is not unique. It’s a striking example of the long-standing billing crisis in SA’s biggest-budget municipality that has compounded the problem of sharply higher property revaluations for some neighbourhoods, because the value of real estate determines the rates a property owner pays.
The property revaluations drive, which started in 2017, has drawn thousands of complaints from residents and businesses who argue the city is inflating their real estate values to boost its flagging income, which is expected to take an enormous hit from economic downturn stemming from large-scale job cuts due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In July, the municipality passed its R68.1bn budget for 2020/2021, which was lower than the R68.3bn proposed in March. The city’s budget for 2019/2020 was R64.5bn.
The metro’s finance MMC, Jolidee Matongo, told Business Day on Thursday that about 70% of the total budget is derived from rates and taxes.
This year’s budget included slashing the capital expenditure by R1bn to R7.5bn, which is lower than the R7.8bn in the previous year’s spending allocations.
Matongo’s spokesperson, Kgamanyane Stan Maphologela, said there is no billing crisis in the metro as the city receives an average of 4,000 billing queries monthly out of the 1.1-million bills it sends out monthly.
“[The metro’s] complaints rate is far lower than global standards,” Maphologela said. More than 90% of billing queries are for water and electricity use, he said.
To resolve ratepayers’ long-standing billing queries, Maphologela said the municipality will embark on a series of “open days” in all its regions to deal with queries and complaints about bills issued during the lockdown period, as the metro’s capacity was reduced during that time.
Matongo’s team might also have to deal with the city’s former mayor Herman Mashaba who has not been spared by what opposition parties and residents call a billing crisis. He was shocked to receive a rates bill of R22,000 from the city in August, Mashaba said.
Now leader of political party Action SA, Mashaba was elected as Joburg mayor in 2016 and focused on fixing the billing crisis, but was unable to do so.
“We normally pay about R10,000, R11,000 and R13,000 in winter. My wife has lodged a complaint with the city,” Mashaba said. “I think these higher bills are as a result of the metro bringing back all the cadres,” he said.
Mashaba said that when he became mayor, the city was receiving many more than 100,000 queries monthly relating to rates bills, and had reduced it to about 8,000 when he left office on November 27 2019.
DA finance spokesperson Patrick Atkinson said that during the lockdown the city did not do proper meter readings and as a result people ended up receiving inflated bills.
“There’s lots of general unhappiness around that so we are putting a petition to the city to review accounts issued between June and August this year,” Atkinson said.
CLARIFICATION: September 28
This story has been updated to identify the role of the DA's Patrick Atkinson
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