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Ratepayers can't pick and choose parts of bill to settle, says judge
Ratepayers may not withhold payment of their rates because they feel they are not receiving a satisfactory service, but they may refuse to pay when they are not receiving a service at all.
In a complex judgment on Friday, the Constitutional Court dismissed an application by a group of ratepayers who withheld payment because they were dissatisfied with the services.
Olga Rademan, a member of the Moqhaka Ratepayers and Residents' Association in Kroonstad, declared a dispute with the Moqhaka municipality in June 2008. She and other members withheld payment of their rates and taxes in protest against poor service, but paid for electricity, water, and other services. The municipality disconnected her electricity in August 2009.
After her electricity was disconnected, Rademan brought an application in the Kroonstad Magistrate's Court, which ruled that the municipality was not entitled to cut the electricity supply to her property.
The high court overturned the lower court's decision.
Rademan appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeal, which dismissed the case and said that a municipality had the option of consolidating the accounts for various services. This was to prevent residents from electing for which municipal accounts they wished to pay.
She then took the matter to the Constitutional Court.
Yesterday Judge Raymond Zondo denied the Kroonstad resident's appeal to stop the municipality cutting off her power after she stopped paying rates. "A resident cannot pick and choose which components of their rates bill to pay," the judge said.
The court held that there was no conflict between the Electricity Regulation Act (ERA), the Municipality Systems Act, and by-laws. Judge Zondo said however, that in this matter, it was not Rademan's case that the municipality claimed payment for services that it had not rendered.
"However, where a municipality claims from a resident, customer or ratepayer payment for services, the resident, customer or ratepayer is only obliged to pay for services that have been rendered.
"There is no oblication on a resident, customer or ratepayer to pay the municipality for a service that has not been rendered," the judge said.
Judge Zondo said that ratepayers may lodge a complaint or query concerning the accuracy of an amount due and payable in respect of a specific municipal service a reflected on the account rendered.
Such a query of complaint must be accompanied by the payment of the disputed amount. The customer did not have to pay the disputed portion of the account pending the outcome of his or her appeal to an appeals committee provided for in the by-laws.
Lee Cahill, a founding member of the Joburg Advocacy Group, said he was not surprised by the judgement.
"It is a sad day for ratepayers, who now effectively have no recourse when local government levies rates and taxes but fails to deliver the services it is supposed to," said Cahill.
National Taxpayers Union chairman Jaap Kelder called the judgment "party political."
"We will now send out advice to members to specify to their municipalities which services were not rendered and dispute them," he said. "This is a miscarriage of justice."