What to do with an excessive municipal bill?

What to do with an excessive municipal bill?

What do you do if you open your municipal bill and discover you’re being asked to pay ten times your usual monthly amount, because you’ve been using a massive amount of water for the past two months?

Water Bill
Flickr - Ricky Willis

Listen to the audio below or read the details below

Well, first you go into shock - it’s not called bill shock for nothing!

And then you frantically scan all those little numbers to figure out what caused the bill to be so high.

Electricity usage? Water?

In my case, it was water.

I got my bill via email week before last, and instead of being around R4,000, it was almost R36,000.

And my water usage had apparently jumped massively from October to November. And then the council had estimated the next month’s water usage based on their reading of November 27, and the sewerage cost is linked to water usage, so that was sky high over the billing period as well.

I wrote to the council for answers.

A water dept official responded: “Please be advised that your water consumption has increased to 217kl between October and November 2019.We further estimated your account for over 44 days based on high average. 

"Please check for an underground leak and get a plumber to repair, then a claim can be lodged.

"In the absence of a leak, you can request a meter to be tested via the contact centre.”

Thankfully, there was no leak.

I took photos of my water meter out on the verge, a day apart, and WhatsApped them to my plumber, along with my bill.

He came back to me with Scenario #3, one not mentioned by that water official. The water meter reader got it wrong on November 27. In fact, the number stated on my bill, as being the reading on November 27, is 200 kilo litres ahead of where the meter is now, two months later.

In other words, impossible.

And thanks to my neighbourhood Whatsapp group, I learnt that a woman in the next road had the same experience. Her bill was a whopping R40,000, and her alleged November 27 reading is also more than what it is now, two months on.

Clearly this is the work of the same meter reader, having an extreme off day. How many meter readings did he get wrong on that day, and others, leading to bill shock and sleepless night for heaps of Durban residents?

I wish I knew.

On discovering that I was not alone with my wildly inaccurate meter reading and the resultant stress-inducing bill, I turned it into a media query.

I asked the City, via its media department:

1. To those who complain to the city of exceptionally high water bills, the city presents just two scenarios: 1. You have a leak, get a plumber in, and 2. The meter is faulty. There is no third option, which happens to be responsible for my high water bill, i.e the meter reader got it wrong. Why is that? 

2. When homeowners point out that the reading on which the allegedly very high consumption was based had to have been wrong, how does the City respond? Does it become a very long investigation, with the consumer being forced to pay the illegitimate bill and then wait months for a refund or a “reconciliation”?

Or is the problem quickly resolved, and the bill adjusted, based on previous average water use, in time for them to pay the new, lower amount before the due date?

3. If the City concedes that the only feasible explanation for a high bill is an incorrect meter reading, is the meter reader in question dealt with in any way? Do officials find out which other properties‘ meters were read by that person on that day or in that week, and proactively investigate whether they got it wrong?

4. What advice do you have for homeowners who discover that they are being charged for water consumption based on an alleged meter reading which their meter has not reached yet? Who do they contact at eThekwini to report this and what information or photos do they need to provide?

Here’s the response I got to those detailed questions, from the eThekwini Municipality’s spokesman Msawakhe Mayisela:

“An investigation into the matter has revealed that both meters were over-read by the contractor. Adjustments for both accounts were done and authorized on Wednesday, 22/01/2020.”

(I have yet to see my revised bill, by the way, and the due date is Tuesday.)

“In order to ensure that this never happens again, the behaviour of contractors will be monitored closely. New contractors will begin work in February and as a measure to mitigate such instances, the new contractors will be required to take photographs of all readings taken in their respective routes daily while using the HHT’s to capture readings.

“Pictures will be used to cross-reference reading accuracy when the meter reading audits are done, hence, we are hopeful that we will eliminate these issues and give our customers peace of mind.”

The new photos policy is good news, but none of my detailed questions were answered.

So I went back to the media department with the unanswered questions and added this: “How many other homeowners have complained this month and in recent months about incorrect meter readers? In other words, has the City worked out how many wrong readings were recorded? I am trying to get a picture of the scale of this issue."

That was last Thursday. I was told yesterday that the media officials were still awaiting a response from the department.

Disappointing, to say the least.

So here’s my advice: if you have got or get a really high municipal bill, check your meters against the readings on your bill. That may well reveal that the reading couldn’t have been right.

Then send your photographic evidence to the municipality and ask for an adjustment.

Oh, and let me know about it, too!

READ: Airport Valet Operators: How to avoid the fly-by-nights

Listen to past Consumerwatch shows below:

Contact Wendy

Get in touch with Wendy via her website or her Facebook page. Please note that Wendy is not able to personally respond to every email she receives. If she is able to take up your case, she will contact you directly. Here are other avenues for you to consider.

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