Maddening municipal mishaps

Private Property South Africa
Lea Jacobs

It's no secret that many of our municipalities don't have their houses in order and that there are homeowners who have received incorrect, often highly inflated, rates accounts.

Mistakes happen, however, when it comes to property, these errors can turn into disaster zones, if the municipality doesn't correct the inaccuracies and proceeds to take legal action against the party concerned.

A case in point that occurred in Durban many years ago highlights what can happen when a seemingly small error is overlooked and legal action is taken. A homeowner took a year’s sabbatical and went to lecture overseas. He owned a property and steps were taken to ensure that the rates and taxes owing on the property were timorously paid to the local municipality. Everything was hunky dory until the municipality sued another property owner with the same surname. Someone, somewhere mixed up things horribly and assumed that the property in question was the one owned by the absent property owner. The municipality took judgement and sold the property on auction. The new owner promptly demolished the existing home and started to build a block of flats on the property. One can only imagine the shock the lawful owner must have felt when he returned home to find that he not only no longer owned the property, but that his home had completely disappeared.

To cut a long story short, the rightful owner successfully sued the municipality and won. Unfortunately, there was no way that ownership of the property could be returned to the previous owner, because the person who had bought the property on auction, had done so in good faith and therefore wasn't responsible for the municipality's error.

In a more recent case, a Ballito owner was horrified to learn that his vacant stand had been sold, without his knowledge, on auction for a measly R1000. It appears that the municipality took legal action on a disputed rates bill that dated back to 2008/9. The property in question was bought for R10 000 in 1996 and was zoned as agricultural land and no rates were payable until the Municipal Property Rates Act kicked in during 2008. The property was subsequently valued and the municipality valued the land at R2.2-million and slapped the owner with a R77 000 rates bill. This amount was appealed by the owner’s attorney. According to a report in the Mercury, the owner subsequently received a bill the next year indicating that the property was valued at a more reasonable R670 000 and the rates owing were R1 427. However, the municipality concerned persisted with its demand that the initial rates bill for 2008/9, which with interest had grown to staggering R820 000 was still outstanding.

It's evident that the municipality made a mistake with the first valuation, given that the amount was drastically reduced when the property was revalued. However, despite this and a legal objection lodged by the owner's attorney, it appears that the municipality pushed on regardless and unbeknown to the owner obtained a summary judgement. Fortunately for the owner, the courts found that the sheriff had not followed the correct protocol regarding the delivery of notices and the court set the auction sale aside, ordering that the person who bought the property on auction be reimbursed.

The most disturbing aspect of both these cases is that the municipalities in question have erred somewhere along the line. However, the initial mistakes have been ignored and the problems have snowballed, which has had drastic consequences for the owners concerned.

What is abundantly clear is that homeowners should never assume that something has been resolved unless they receive official notification about the fact. In other words owners should not assume that everything is in order if the municipality remains silent. As an owner, it is safer to take the initiative and do your own checking.

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