Should taxpayers be expected to continue paying municipal rates and taxes “for ever and ever”, even if they receive poor services?
Could they stop paying, or would you have to “turn to the streets” in protest against poor service delivery?
These were some of the thorny issues the Constitutional Court was grappling with this morning, in a case involving an elderly Free State woman who has refused to pay her rates and taxes.
Olga Rademan, a resident of Moqhaka Municipality in the Free State, elected not to pay municipal rates and taxes amounting to just under R3 000 because she said service delivery in the Kroonstad area was “non-existent”.
Rademan, however, continued to pay for other services she received, including electricity, water provision and waste disposal.
Despite the fact that her electricity bill was paid up in full, the municipality cut her power in order to collect the rates and taxes owed to it.
Now Rademan is arguing that the municipality was not entitled to do this because its debt collection bylaws are in conflict with the Electricity Regulation Act (ERA).
Arguing on her behalf, Advocate Dennie du Preez said, it was “not that you are withholding money, we pay (the municipality) for what we think you deliver ... because we do not receive proper services and there is total financial mismanagement”.
Du Preez argued that the ERA only allowed municipalities to cut power in strict, defined circumstances, such as when a person was insolvent or where the “customer (ratepayer) has contravened the payment conditions”.
Because Rademan’s electricity bill was fully paid up, argued Du Preez, the municipality had no valid reason to turn the lights off.
But Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke questioned where the Constitutional Court justices should look to determine the conditions of payment.
“Shouldn’t we look at regulations and other statutes that regulate services to see what are the conditions the customer (ratepayer) must comply with?”
Moseneke was referring to one of the central arguments that the Moqhaka Municipality has relied on – that the Municipal Systems Act, and its Credit Control and Debt Collection By-Laws, gives the municipality the right to consolidate all the accounts of a ratepayer and to terminate any service, even if an outstanding amount is owed for a separate service.
Jimmy Claasen, SC, arguing for the municipality, said that a situation where people could pick and choose for which services they pay would “lead to anarchy and chaos”.
Claasen said there was no conflict between the two acts, and that the “payment conditions” referred to in the Electricity Regulation Act would naturally incorporate the provisions of the Municipal Systems Act and its bylaws.
“There is a constitutional duty to provide services but there is also a constitutional duty to pay for those services,” said Claasen.
But Moseneke picked this argument apart fairly quickly: “If the customer (ratepayer) is only happy with electricity provision, and not with the rest, the customer is very unhappy – let’s say the refuse is not removed, the streets are not swept, maybe the water is sometimes dirty – what remedy does the customer have?”
Moseneke said it “couldn’t be the law that you pay for ever and ever, even if services are bad for ever and ever”.
Claasen said a solution here would require “Solomonic wisdom”, but that it would have to lie outside the courts at the voting polls, “taking to the streets” in protest or, inside the courts, in the form of an interdict.
But Claasen said it could not be the case that somebody was “allowed to take the law into their own hands” by picking for which services they would pay.
Judgment in the matter has been reserved.