The dispute between the non-profit Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association (JPOMA) and the City of Johannesburg(COJ) regarding millions in back-billed refuse charges is set to escalate with sewer charges now also in the crosshairs.

JPOMA has lodged a class action on behalf of 42 applicants and served the COJ and its dedicated refuse collector Pikitup over refuse-removal charges that were backdated to 2018. The city has until 19 April to file its notice of intention to oppose.

At issue is the recalculation of refuse charges on hundreds of inner-city property accounts, which JPOMA maintains contravenes COJ’s own bylaws and which amounts to more than R21 million.  The applicants are all companies that own rental accommodation in the Johannesburg inner city and are responsible for around 7 333 residential units housing lower- and middle-income households.

A further application is being prepared to challenge the same process that COJ has applied to sewer charges.

According to Shaun Streaton, Chairman of JPOMA, its members pay over R80 million to the City every month. “We are disappointed that COJ is continuing to issue notices of disconnection on back-billed accounts despite promising to suspend any disconnections pending the outcome of the court case,” he says. “In addition, it keeps insisting that our members sign acknowledgements of debt, which we unequivocally oppose.”

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Says Streaton, “The city council has categorically failed in the execution of its duties to keep the city clean and safe, and vital infrastructure – roads, pavements, lighting and more – have been left to crumble. Service delivery is at an all-time low,  yet the City charges above-inflation increases year after year for electricity, water and sewer.”

He cites the example of three buildings belonging to JPOMA members that have been without electricity since Monday 28 March, along with many other buildings and businesses in the inner city. “After tenant riots our three buildings are now running on rented generators at R25 000 per day including diesel. Yet the City tries to balance the expense side of their budget with ludicrous increases, tariff changes and unlawful back-dated charges.

“We regularly get calls from the public highlighting that this matter is not isolated to the inner city, and the more we hear, the more we realise the extent of the billing errors and unfair billing,” says Streaton. “One member has had his property converted back to business tariff, despite it being 100% residential. COJ states that because there is a crèche on the property it is a business. There is no crèche, yet the inspector refuses to meet with them. This unwillingness of the City to even discuss dragging issues will further force tenants to the informal market, where they don’t have to pay.”

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Streaton quotes the City’s Draft IDP 2022 which proposes hefty increases in all tariffs for the 2022/2023 fiscal year, including 4.85% on rates, 9.61% on electricity, 9.75% each on water and sewer and 5% on refuse.

The City has now also back-billed sectional title properties for sewage for three and a half years, regardless of size, whether these properties are occupied or not, or location, he says.  “A flat in the inner city is now expected to pay the same sewer rates as a 300 sqm erf in the suburbs.

“These unlawful increases, coupled with crippling back billing will destroy the affordable housing market in the inner city,”  says Streaton.  “Our members have contributed so much to making the inner city habitable, including paying private companies to provide the cleaning and security that COJ has failed to do. We have a thriving community of tenants without whom COJ’s expressed wish of being seen as a ‘world-class African city’ will come to nothing. The strongarm tactics employed by the City against those providing homes for this community is inequitable and will destroy businesses that keep a community in balance. This simply has to be challenged.”

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