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The dreaded municipal bill is a key form of communication between local government and its citizens. Just how effective this communication is can be determined almost entirely by the consumer's understanding of that municipal invoice.
Therein lies the problem. Here in South Africa, invoices just aren't standardised, despite repeated efforts to get this rectified. Municipal bills are often:
There's no shame in admitting that most of us don't understand what's happening in these bills. We know for sure that we're being robbed in some foul way, but we don't know how.
This lack of understanding is dangerous, for reasons both obvious and dubious, and the previous paragraph is a prime example of why.
It breeds distrust. We don't know if what we're seeing is correct. We refuse to pay.
Furthermore, all the obfuscation has a negative effect on the customer's awareness and regulation of use, and does little to reduce our energy and water footprint. Bearing in mind that no two municipalities issue identical bills, there's almost no information on consumption, no communication on conservation and nothing is learnt.
Until these invoices improve, they will never function as intended and customers will continue to struggle in fully understanding them.
So, let's take a look at the problem with municipal bills, and see if we can break them down.
Most South Africans should know all about municipal bills. If you live in a house and have access to electricity, water and waste removal services, then you should receive a monthly bill from your local municipality, the amount payable depending on your usage.
As previously stated, no two municipalities issue identical bills, but all of the basic information should remain the same.
This information should include:
Most invoices should issue you with itemised billing – meaning that the cost of each and every service is laid out clearly. Some municipalities, however, do not do this, and it's incredibly irritating. We'll go into this a little more below.
One of the biggest problems, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, is that consumers just don't understand what's happening on the invoice. You may be provided with a bunch of information, but there's no way to decipher it. Worse yet, with the state of government as it is, it's safe to assume that every now and then you'll be billed incorrectly.
High municipal bills have been irritating South Africans for some time, particularly in Cape Town with the water problems. So, it's imperative that we understand the bill we're receiving, and know what we're paying for. The ordinary South African struggles to find the right information on a municipal invoice. While the basics may be there, we may find it illegible or confusing. Some info you may be searching for, but unable to find, could include:
Some other elements which make the invoice confusing:
Something else to note is that not all municipalities will bundle water, electricity and other charges, such as refuse removal, onto one bill. Sometimes, you'll receive more than one invoice, and just like municipal bills will differ in appearance from city to city, they also make use of different terminology. Which is senseless, but nonetheless…
Here are some of the main terms you need to understand.
Before we get into the actual invoice, it's also important to note that, in South Africa, we receive two types of billing on electricity. metered and pre-paid.
With the metered system, you use electricity and you're then billed accordingly. The amount you use is counted by an electricity meter – a small box found either inside or outside your property.
Once a month, a meter reader is supposed come to your house and make a note of your electricity usage, and after that reading is uploaded into the system, you'll receive a bill. If you're lucky, the meter readers might actually do their jobs properly.
With the pre-paid system, you buy electricity much the same way as you would buy airtime for your phone. You can then load this into the special meter in your home. Unlike the aforementioned meter, a pre-paid meter counts downwards, to show you how many units you have left.
These units are called Kilowatt Hours (kWh) and each kWh is charged according to set rates.
Because nobody from the municipality reads this pre-paid meter, and because you've already paid for your electricity, you won't receive a bill for it.
One more thing to remember is that the more electricity you use, the more you'll pay per kWh, and pre-paid electricity is commonly more affordable than metered. Plus, you can remove human error from the equation – provided that you remember to buy your vouchers.
Below, we have the example of a municipal bill issued by the City of Johannesburg. There are two pages.
Basic information contained within this bill includes (1) the name of the property owner, the address, the size and estimated value of the property (2) and also the date of that valuation. This last part is noteworthy because basic municipal rates take the size of your property into account, as well as the area in which it is situated.
There is also the invoice number (3) – which you'll need to query the invoice – and your municipal account number (4) – used as a reference number.
At (5) you'll find the relevant contact information at (6) the VAT numbers of the municipal departments providing service.
The date on which the invoice was issued is found at (7).
At the bottom of the page you'll find the EasyPay number (8), which you can use to pay your bill at special EasyPay machines in various outlets, and the municipality's banking details (9).
The total amount due can be found in detail in the middle of the page, but also at the bottom right (10) with the due date. You'll note that it gives you the previous amount owed, minus the amount last paid, and the current amount owed.
Finally, at (11) you'll find a special PIN to use when accessing your account online.
Now we move on to the reverse side of this same bill, in which the services you have made use of are broken down by section – with itemised billing.
Here we have six different sections. Property Rates, Electricity, Water & Sanitation, Refuse, Sundries and Current Charges.
Property Rates (12) shows you what your basic municipal rates will be for the month, determined by the size, location and value of your property.
Electricity (13) shows how much you owe for electricity used and Water & Sanitation (14) shows how much you owe for usage and services rendered. Both of these detail how many kWh and Kl you have used, as well as the rate per unit.
Of course, Refuse Removal needs to be paid, and this can be found at (15).
Finally, at (16) you will find the total amount due for these services – and this amount should correspond to the Current Amount due on the first page.
We've used an invoice by the City of Johannesburg because it is one of the best. The information is precise and laid out in a clear way. Easy to understand.
Other invoices, such as those issued by the Matjhabeng, Amathole, eMalahleni or Msunduzi municipalities are often an absolute nightmare to decipher. They're unclear, jumbled, convoluted and idiotic, with a bunch of abbreviations nobody understands.
So, it's easy to become confused. But – if you familiarise yourself with the examples above, the others are a lot easier to comprehend. All you need is patience. A lot of patience.