Struggle activist, 81, wins battle of the bill

Activist Steven Carolus, 81, had his own struggle with the City of Cape Town when he received a demand to pay
R15 500 they claimed he owed on his rates bill and “they even sent the debt collectors after me”.

“Without notifying us, the municipality in February, sent their staff to reduce our water to a trickle at the Crawford house where my wife, Margaret, and I, have lived for 42 years. At first I thought the trickle was because the copper piping had been stolen,” Mr Carolus said.

“Everyone has a duty to pay their rates bill so I signed a stop order for R700 a month through Standard Bank in 2010 which went through without a hitch until February 2020,” said Mr Carolus.

Although City manager Lungelo Mbandazayo, mayor Dan Plato and Western Cape Premier Alan Winde did not respond to the affidavit he sent outlining his plight (“I suppose I am not worthy of a response”.), not all the blame should be attributed to the municipality.

Mr Carolus should shoulder some of it because he didn’t open mail that was addressed to him.

“Out of the blue I received a settlement offer of R9 000 from Nadison Pillay of the finance department which I rejected because I wanted a detailed statement,” Mr Carolus said.

When Mr Carolus asked Ward 49 councillor Rashid Adams for help to apply for a rebate, he suggested he go to the Dulcie September civic centre where a staffer helped him.

“While we were discussing the problem, she asked me about a R700 income that reflected on my bank statement and then casually told me, ‘By the way, our financial institution has changed to Nedbank,’” Mr Carolus said.

“Which is when I realised that R700 was for the municipality which had not been credited to them for 18 months.

“Later that day, I got another shock. When I went to buy R100 electricity, I was only credited with R30 and I found out that it was called the piggy-back system, the City’s way of recovering the
R15 000 short-fall.

“At no time did the finance department notify me of non-payment. Instead ,18 months later, they took the drastic step of reducing the water flow to a trickle, which got my attention, and then deducting 70% of my electric purchases, which is still being applied at the time of writing,” Mr Carolus said.

“On raising this with the finance department, I was very lucky to get the help of Amerah Jones who arranged a meeting on a Saturday morning. I gave her a stop order for R1 000 and, true to her word, within two hours the water was in full flow. She also indicated that she would ask for the outstanding debt to be written off,” said Mr Carolus,

Ian Neilson, mayoral committee member for finance, said the stop orders were returned due to the change in the City’s bank.

“When the City changed to Nedbank on July 1 2018, customers were notified by post and through media and they were reminded again when Absa still accepted payments for a further three months. When a City staff member phoned Mr Carolus following this enquiry, he said that he did not open the letters because he was under the impression that since he had a stop order, there was no need to look at municipal correspondence.

“The initial debt recovery step taken is the issuing of warning letters, or letters of demand advising users of the imminent restriction, or disconnection of services. If no responses are received on the served warning notices, then the next step in terms of legislation is to either disconnect the electricity supply, or to restrict (trickle) the water supply. Most people at this stage, come into our offices to either settle their accounts in full, or make arrangements to pay off their debts based on their ability to pay,” said Mr Neilson, who added that they served the warning letter to Mr Carolus on October 2 2019.

The City did send numerous invoices, as requested, to Mr Carolus’s attorney. He sent his request for a detailed statement in an email to the mayor and City manager and not directly to the finance directorate.

“A settlement offer is always offered when we feel that the complainant has a genuine case of not having been aware of the changes. As a caring city we offer it by waiving the punitive fees of credit control and not as a way of admitting fault. Our billing system offers full transparency of all transactions with full end-to-end traceability of all transactions. Nothing is wrong with the system,” Mr Neilson said.

“The key problem is that Mr Carolus did not respond to the repeated communications that the City sent him. If he had done so, the issues would have been resolved without resorting to debt management actions.”

On May 6, Mr Carolus said when he went to buy electricity the “piggy-back” system had been lifted. “Now I must play my part and keep my promise to settle this outstanding amount as soon as possible. To do that, I will need the finance department to provide me with an updated statement.”

Mr Carolus said he doesn’t know anything about an attorney. The City didn’t send him a statement but he “got one through the back door”.

“Any other financial institution who gives credit has a limit. My suggestion is to take action when people go over the limit and not when citizens run up an enormous bill,” Mr Carolus said.

“Thank you to everyone who took up the cudgels on my behalf.”