Compliance with Council By-Laws
A complaint was received from a community member about real estate agents using temporary signs to advertise open homes in the local municipality. The complainant was particularly concerned about the placement of signs on roundabouts and footpaths for extended periods (over and above the duration of the open home).
The complainant raised these concerns directly with the relevant Council and was informed that it was indeed a breach of a Council By-Law. According to the relevant By-Law, permits were required for advertising signs to be placed on road reserves and footpaths. Unfortunately, the Council also indicated that it was not in a position to monitor compliance with the By-Law, given that the breaches were most likely to occur on weekends.
In response to the inquiries undertaken by this office, Council responded and confirmed that it has now written to all real estate agents operating in the municipality and provided a reminder of the requirements under the By-Law to obtain a permit for open home signs placed on road reserves and footpaths. Council also indicated that officers would be undertaking random inspections to ensure compliance with the By-Laws in the future.
The response and action taken by Council to the concerns raised by this office is considered reasonable in the circumstances.
Issue with s23 Urban Drainage Act 2013
A complaint was received by this office raising concerns about a local council, in particular, a concern about the council issuing a notice pursuant to s23 of the Urban Drainage Act 2013 (the Notice).
The issue identified in this complaint was that the Notice issued did not have a clear avenue of review available to property owners wishing to dispute the Notice. The Urban Drainage Act 2013 offers no appeal rights for a notice issued pursuant to s23. It was determined that a property owner may be able to apply for a review pursuant to the Judicial Review Act 2000, however it was also identified that this avenue of review was potentially costly for all parties and disproportionate to the fine in the Notice.
The Ombudsman also identified that the council should have provided evidence to the complainant of the nuisance referred to in the Notice. It is considered good administrative practice that the reasons for issuing the Notice are clearly explained.
As the Ombudsman had also identified that the avenue of review available in relation to a Notice issued pursuant to S23 of the Urban Drainage Act 2013 is so costly, the Ombudsman wrote to the Department Primary Industry Parks, Water and Environment and suggested that an amendment to this section of the Urban Drainage Act 2013 may be necessary.
The Secretary of the Department Primary Industry Parks, Water and Environment responded that it was supportive of the Ombudsman’s proposal to include it as part of the review of Tasmania’s Local Government Legislation Framework. The amendment is being progressed through the Department of Premier and Cabinet.
Facilities for Legal Hearings in Prison
A complaint was received by this office about the failure by the Tasmanian Prison Service (TPS) to provide a room with adequate resources for an inmate to participate in a telephone hearing conducted by a legal tribunal.
In responding to inquiries TPS acknowledged that a Case Manager received correspondence from the inmate about the hearing and he in turn forwarded the correspondence to the unit responsible for booking the telephone call. TPS records show that the hearing date was confirmed with the tribunal weeks prior to the hearing. TPS also identified that the unit responsible for booking a call does not arrange the place the call is facilitated, this is instead managed by the staff within the facility where an inmate is housed.
Staff at the relevant facility were provided with notification of the telephone booking scheduled for the day of the hearing, however staff were not made aware of the specific requests the inmate had made for the features (a quiet space, desk, chair and telephone with speaker facilities) to be available at the time of the notification.
TPS advised it does not permit inmates access to hands-free telephones for professional calls, as such telephones have the capacity to dial out and the telephones do not have speaker facilities.
Attempts were made by TPS staff to secure a room more suited to the inmate’s needs, however it was not possible to facilitate this request due to the room deemed suitable was being used for a Parole Board hearing.
TPS has acknowledged that what occurred resulted in the inmate participating in a hearing in a room that was not ideal for the situation. As a result of this complaint, TPS has identified that when the unit responsible for booking professional calls receives a request for certain facilities, the requests will be forwarded to the Supervisors/Superintendent of the relevant facilities. The Supervisor or Superintendent will then be in a better position to see if the request can be accommodated.
Notification of missed payments
A complaint was lodged with this office concerning issues a complainant had experienced when dealing with Monetary Penalties Enforcement Service (MPES). The complaint raised concerns about the seemingly disproportionate response to a defaulted payment when the complainant had entered into a Variation of Payment Conditions Notice (VPCN) with MPES that required fortnightly payments. These payments were debited directly to MPES from the complainant’s Centrelink Benefit and went into default when the complainant’s income caused the benefit to cease.
MPES remained of the opinion that it is the responsibility of people who enter into a VPCN to keep MPES updated with any changes in financial circumstances. MPES also stated the responsibility to ensure payments are made on time with the correct reference details rests with the customer. The VPCN includes a note specifying that:
‘Failure to pay in accordance with the terms of this Notice will result in enforcement action against you…’ [original emphasis].
MPES acknowledged that it brought the default to the complainant’s attention by issuing a further enforcement order. MPES confirmed that the type of notification provided to customers when payments fail is entirely dependent on how payments are made. In this situation, where a customer had established a payment from a Centrelink benefit, there was no notification (save for the enforcement order) of the payments failure. MPES has acknowledged this difficulty by waiving the enforcement fees that resulted from the payment defaults.
In order to assist customers, MPES has recently introduced a free SMS reminder option for those who miss payments under a VPCN. This will allow customers to make up payments and avoid further fees and enforcement action. In addition, MPES has introduced an online registration and access to allow customers to see their account balances and statements. The availability of the SMS and online options will help prevent similar situations where payments fall into default without the customer being directly aware of the failure.
As part of these inquiries, it also became evident that MPES were under the impression that four other payments made by the complainant were not made on the due dates. Further information disclosed by MPES indicated that these four occasions actually involved the payments being received before the due date. MPES has confirmed that changes have since been made to the MPES database that will ensure early payments no longer trigger defaults.
A complaint was received in relation to a significantly larger quarterly water usage bill from TasWater. A water leak had occurred at the complainant's property from the pipe between the water main and the house. The complainant attempted to turn the water off using the stop tap, however the complainant was unable to do so, as it appeared that the stop tap had been removed. The complainant reported the leak and stop tap issue to TasWater but then experienced a significant delay in a Service Delivery Officer (SDO) attending the property and inspecting the leak.
TasWater sent reminder notices in relation to this unpaid account. When the complainant contacted TasWater about the account, advice was provided to email TasWater to request a water leak remission and provide details of the incident for further investigation. It does not appear the complainant complied with this request.
TasWater has a general policy that customers are responsible for faults to infrastructure (for example water pipes) that occur between the mains connection point and the customer’s property. The fault occurred to a section of pipe that was the customer's responsibility, however in this case the SDO actually repaired the leak at TasWater’s expense. TasWater considers this a sign of its goodwill.
TasWater has accepted that there was a delay in responding to the call. It has attributed this to a navigation system error. Given the information provided to the Customer Service Operator during the initial call, about the location of the property a suggestion has been made to provide more thorough notes on the work order provided to the SDO attending the property. The Ombudsman has also suggested that TasWater request a mobile contact number as an alternative contact in situations where a customer has indicated he or she will not be at home. TasWater has accepted these suggestions as an opportunity to improve customer service.
TasWater accepts that it did not provide notification to customers about the stop tap renewals (when the stop tap was changed to the new one) and it has accepted a suggestion that it should communicate these changes to customers in future.
Due to the delay in attending the property, TasWater has offered a discount on the account, without having to access the Remission Scheme (this means that the Remission Scheme will still be available to access on another occasion should it ever become necessary). TasWater offered a $160.00 credit by way of apology for the standard of service received. This has been calculated by reviewing the billing quarter for the same period for the three prior years and in accordance with the TasWater Water Remission policy that allows for 50% of the above average usage being remitted. The remaining amount to bring the sum to $160.00 was an apology for the delay in attending the property.
A further suggestion was also made to TasWater that additional information be made available to complainant’s about TasWater’s hardship and payment options in situations where concerns about extraordinarily large accounts are raised.
Housing Tasmania – August 2019
Ms B is a long term tenant in a Housing Tasmania property. She suffers from porphyria cutanea tarda, a skin condition which is exacerbated by environmental factors. She received medical advice that her gas heating was likely to be causing flare ups of her condition, resulting in severe itching, skin sores, shortness of breath and coughing. She made a request to Housing Tasmania for her gas heating be replaced with a heat pump, providing medical evidence and offering to pay extra rent if this occurred. Her request was declined as her current heating was still in working order, without mention of the health reasons raised.
Ms B contacted Ombudsman Tasmania and concerns were raised with Housing Tasmania about the quality of the decision and reasoning on this issue. Housing Tasmania reviewed the decision and then offered to replace Ms B’s heating or to provide a priority transfer to a newly built unit with a heat pump. She elected to stay in her property and a heat pump was installed a short time later.
TasWater - July 2019
A complaint was received in relation to leak remission payment offered by TasWater, particularly about the billing period for which the remission was offered. Information provided by the complainant indicated that the leak had impacted upon two billing periods, however TasWater had only offered the remission in relation to one billing period.
TasWater response to the inquiries made by this office recognised that it had made an oversight by not recognising that the leak at the complainant’s property had occurred over the two billing periods. TasWater offered a remission to the excess water usage to take into account the additional days and apologised to the complainant for the oversight.