Take Action – My bill is wrong. Now what?

If it has not happened to you, it has certainly happened to someone in your neighourhood. Receiving an inflated municipal bill, well above your average, brings with it huge amounts of distress. Not only are you likely to have your services cut and incur interest and possible legal action implemented against you if you ignore it, fighting the dispute can be equally draining with many municipal customer support service centres being in a very poor state of operation. 

But by knowing what governs the process, you will be empowered to ask the right questions and hopefully escalate the issue.

What you will need to know is what is the difference between a Query and Dispute.

According to Schindlers Attorneys a ‘query’ might be considered different to a ‘dispute’ in terms of by-laws and policies. If this is the case, a query would be considered as any “issue” raised in relation to an invoice, billing information, infrastructure repairs, etc. whereas a ‘dispute’ would be a denial of liability for a certain amount on an invoice. 

What is key to understand is that regardless of the potential dysfunction you may encounter, every municipality must have a policy that deals with bill queries and disputes.

This is laid out in Section 95 of the Municipal Systems Act.

In summary it says:

  • The municipality must create a “positive and reciprocal relationship” between those paying municipal bills and the municipality.
  • To make sure the consumption by individual users of services is “measured through accurate and verifiable metering systems:
  • Provide accessible mechanisms for customers to query or verify accounts and metered consumption, including an appeals process for “redress for inaccurate accounts

It is up to you to pursue the matter to the end.

However, what is also important to know is that by lodging a query or dispute you are not entitled to simply stop paying your municipal bill in its entirety.

This is clearly spelt out in the Section 102 of the Municipal Systems Act.  

How each municipality manages a dispute, and what is payable, can be found in each council’s Credit Control Policy. A simple online search should help you locate it. In most cases the municipality’s collection unit will require the ratepayer to pay an average amount of the disputed value calculated from the preceding three months invoices.

As an example, if your April water consumption was suddenly excessively high, you would lodge a dispute and then pay an averaged amount for water based on your January, February and March water bill line items.

In almost all cases, inflated service bills are the result of meter readings from water or electricity meters.

The best measure to combat this problem is to take your meter reading every month. If your municipality offers a service of self-reporting via and App or SMS or WhatsApp channel, it is best you take it up and that you keep a record.  This will make managing the dispute a bit easier.

What is key to know is that disputes are often time sensitive. You need to act immediately or within 30 days of receiving the excessive bill. It might take longer than 30 days to resolve but you need to act fast in the initial stages.

Whatever route you use to lodge your issue be it telephonic, in person, email or a combination of all of them, keep a detailed paper trail and make sure you get a reference number.

It is also up to you to pursue the matter. A failure on the municipality’s end to complete a task is a bureaucratic error but a failure by you to act on a requirement of the dispute process or complaint within a mandated time could null and void the entire process.

Questions you should ask include:

  • Does the municipality have a different customer complaints contact number for different services provided?
  • Is there a specialised unit you must contact for your particular problem?
  • Is your water billed by your local or district municipality? Make sure you know the difference.
  • If my water bill is corrected due to my dispute will my sanitation line item on my bill also be corrected? Often sanitation services are billed at a ratio to your household water usage.
  • If the service is poor, is there a municipal ombudsman you can refer the matter to?

Find below links to the credit control policies of South Africa’s nine metropolitan councils.

Your water bill seems wrong. Now what?

  • Check you haven’t got a leak- turn off all taps, and check the meter. If it is still turning you may have a leak. Phone a plumber or leak detector to investigate. If you have a leak on your side of the meter, the municipality will not fix it.
  • Check if your bill is an actual or estimated reading- This information is stated on the bill. If it is an estimate send your reading to your municipality via whichever service they provide (App, SMS, WhatsApp, Email)
  • Take a photo of the meter include reading, meter number and proof of date (newspaper, a timestamp camera app or something printed) and email the following information:
    • Name
    • Address
    • Acc No
    • Meter No
    • Meter Reading Date
  • They will reply with a reference number. Please keep this so you can escalate any issues over 30 days (one billing cycle) with your ward councilor.