CITY residents are fuming after thousands of locals received warning letters, threatening that their municipal services would be suspended, despite their accounts being paid.
The municipality yesterday admitted that an error had been made and confirmed that the demand letters had been sent to around 20 000 account holders.
“Unfortunately some of those who received these letters had already made payments, while others had made payment arrangements, and included those not in arrears at all with their municipal accounts,” municipal spokesperson, Sello Matsie, said yesterday.
He added that the letters were intended for those in arrears with their municipal accounts and haven’t paid or made arrangements.
“We would like to request all those that are in good standing to disregard those letters and offer our sincere apology, however, those in arrears are called upon to heed those letters,” Matsie stated further.
“We are reminded that the municipality is in the process of recouping money owed in order to reduce the debt. We also need the outstanding debt money to enable us to provide the services. We further urge residents to pay on or before the due date, that being the 14th of every month, to qualify for discounts,” the municipality stated.
The local authority, however, side-stepped several questions posed by both local residents and business people, who received the letters.
A local resident pointed out that not only did he have proof of payment, but he received his electricity account, reflecting the payment, days before the date on the letter of demand.
“This shows total incompetence on the part of the municipality. The municipality needs to tell us how this happened – was it a human error or a glitch in the system – and what is being done to ensure that it will not happen again?” asked the irate resident, who received the same letter for both his business account and his residential account.
“If it was a human error, will the person responsible be held liable for the ratepayers’ money which has now been wasted on printing, paper, envelopes and stamps to send out these letters of demand?”
“This amount to thousands of rands wasteful expenditure. Someone needs to take responsibility.”
What has irked residents even further is that affected residents who have tried to contact the official concerned, on the number provided in the letter, have been ignored.
“I have phoned and phoned the number given in the letter to try find out what was happening and it just rings and rings. When I contacted the debtors section of the municipality, I was given the number of the person who signed the letter (Mr K Samolapo: Manager of Debtors Management) but he also never bothered to answer his phone.
“If the municipality has made an error in sending out these letters, the least that can be done is to let residents know what the situation is. Instead, the officials involved are essentially sending a middle finger to people who pay their accounts regularly and timeously. The money owed to the municipality is close to R2 billion but I am not surprised if they cannot treat those who do pay with respect and stop ignoring them.”
Other residents confirmed that they too had received similar letters of demand and were not able to contact anyone at the municipality to clarify the issue.
Questions were also raised about whether the appointment of a debt collecting company to manage the municipal debt was linked to the error.
Despite these questions being posed to the municipality, no answers were provided, and when further prompted, the reply given was: “The whole matter is subject of an inquiry as to why the municipality would embarrass members of the public with letters of demand. All the concerns regarding the costs of printing and the non-responsiveness of officials will all be looked into. We have also been flooded with inquiries from the public on this matter while some of our staff in the debt collection offices have borne the brunt of the backlash. The total number of letters sent out is around 20 000 although at this stage it is difficult to determine the percentage of those who received the letters that are in arrears.”
According to the figures for April this year, the total outstanding debt is currently sitting at R1.9 billion.
“The bulk of the debt is aged over 90 days with a total weighting of 87 percent,” a report by the CFO, Lydia Mahloko, on the Monthly Budget Statement for April, stated.
“An analysis revealed that the catalysts for this condition are the ineffective collection methods once a debt ages beyond 60 days due to the sheer volume of account holders in arrears, the poor economic circumstances of a large number of our account holders, and the increasing cost of services beyond the municipality’s control.
“This is compounded by the large number of water leaks that go unreported which causes account holders’ accounts to escalate beyond their means to pay. In addition to this, there is a substantial portion of irrecoverable, stagnant debt that attracts interest every month. We have a backlog of processing this debt and submitted this to council for approval to write off.
“In order to remedy our vast ageing debt, we have appointed a service provider to assist with the collection of debt older than 60 days.
“We are also in the process of revising our policies to make our processes more effective. This will allow us to focus on preventing debt from ageing where possible as well as relying on the service provider’s expertise in tracing and updating our debtors’ information and in recovering outstanding amounts.
“We anticipate a marked turnaround of this trend and in conjunction with a concerted effort to retard the escalation of ageing debt, we are focusing on improving the accuracy and regularity of our billing as well as our communication with our account holders.”