A small Centurion business that buys on average R17 000 of electricity every month, got a nasty shock when notified last week that they have five days to pay R1.2 million to the City of Tshwane for under-recovery of electricity costs since 2015.
The city’s service provider Total Utilities Management Services (Tums) stated in its email to the company Productive Systems, that this was due to a technical fault detected during a “field site investigation”. It informed Productive Systems that it would do a “debit adjustment” to its prepaid electricity meter and gave the company five days to pay the R1.2 million.
The fault that caused the alleged under-recovery was outside of Productive Systems’s control and there is no suggestion that they tampered with the metering system.
According to Productive Systems MD Albert Birmingham the company has a turnover of about R20 million per year. It designs and builds machinery for local and international clients in the packaging industry.
He says to expect a small company like this to cough up about 6% of annual turnover at the drop of a hat is unrealistic and could kill the company, which employs about 50 people.
“We have been paying an average of R17 000 per month for electricity over the past few months. We did the costing and billed our clients on the basis of that. The city now claims an additional R42 000 per month for the past 30 months. I cannot go back to my clients in Panama, China and Australia and tell them I have undercharged them,” Birmingham says.
The problem on the Productive Systems account seems to be the same as the one the City of Tshwane identified on that of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), which was notified of under-billing of R30 million at the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute in the north of Tshwane.
Moneyweb in November last year reported that Tums, which is the implementation vehicle for the city’s smart metering contract with PEU Capital Partners, admitted to over- and under-billing some of the 13 000 Tshwane customers it supplied with electricity since October 2013.
The North Gauteng High Court earlier declared the contract unlawful and invalid, and suspended the order or invalidity until a just and equitable remedy has been found. The court will hear arguments in this regard in October.
Tums earlier stated in court papers that there were only a handful of incidents of under-billing “but in almost all instances the revenue has either been collected or is in the process of being collected”.
This contradicted statements by a senior Tshwane official that about 600 intensive users were affected.
The root cause of the issue is apparently that Tums used incorrect Current Transformer (CT) and Voltage Transformer (VT) ratios which resulted in the wrong scaling factor.
These ratios are crucial to converting the reading of electricity usage into billing – using an incorrect ratio could result in material billing variances.
Tums earlier indicated that the ratios were provided by the City of Tshwane and they merely applied what was provided.
Eric Bott, director of Energy Measurement Consulting and another independent expert Moneyweb consulted, however, said any professional person who installs an electricity meter should know which ratios to use.
Bott and his lawyers will on Tuesday meet with representatives of the City of Tshwane to discuss the adjustment to Productive Systems’s account. They have in the meantime assisted the company to declare a formal dispute in terms of the Municipal Systems Act, which protects the company from having its power supply disconnected, provided it keeps on paying the current account.
Bott says the city should claim the amounts under-recovered from PEU or Tums, which should have professional insurance to cover.
According to Bott the ARC has paid a small portion of the R30 million the city claimed in relation to Onderstepoort and negotiations between the parties are ongoing.
Birmingham told Moneyweb that he is very concerned about the accuracy of the City of Tshwane’s electricity metering. “If they made such a mistake earlier, how do I know they will be accurate in future?”
Bott says changing the system to have metering done by an independent party that gives both the consumer and the council access to the data, would safeguard both parties. He will install a parallel meter at Productive Systems to determine the accuracy of the city’s meter.
Moneyweb is also aware of a private individual who was informed in February that Tums would make a debit adjustment to the prepaid meter at his house for more than R61 000 due to “low consumption that was detected on your smart meter”. This relates to the period August 9 2016 to January 25 2018.
The City of Tshwane did not respond to Moneyweb’s questions by the time of publication.
After publication of the article, the City of Tshwane responded to questions Moneyweb sent to it earlier this week. It confirmed that the City “determines the scale factor in line with the measurement/technical standard”. It said the following in relation to the Productive Systems issue: “The electricity usage/consumption through the monitoring system was identified with lower than normal consumption pattern on the account and went to site to investigate. On investigation the Revenue Protection team became aware that work had taken place on the CT/VTs and that they appeared to have been changed. The same was confirmed by the Electricity Metering section that the CT/VTs had been changed for it was plausible that the ration had to be adjusted to reflect information on the CT/VT plate. The conclusion on the adjustment is still pending, the client was informed of the same.”
The City said there “are a number of reasons why CTs and VTs are changed for operational reasons. As well as CTs or VTs failing as part of their operational end-of- life, CTs and VTs can be (and are) tampered with or be exposed to external influences such as lightning strikes. In such instances, these devices fail and have to be replaced. Adjustments can only be made once the devices are replaced and the account normalised, in line with the approved Electricity by-law of 2013, outlines how and when these adjustments are calculated.”
Asked how much money is involved in these adjustments, the City responded: “We do not categorise the adjustments at this level of detail and so any figure would be misleading.”
It said the issue of Onderstepoort is still pending and the matter of the debit adjustment to the private individual’s prepaid meter relates to meter tampering.
The City said the debit adjustments were done in accordance with its 2013 electricity by-laws.