On Tuesday (21 January), the Marsiling-Yew Tee Town Council elucidated that it did not make a police report to arrest a single mother for unpaid service and conservancy charges (S&CC) amounting to S$2,150.

It explained that the woman was actually apprehended after she failed to turn up for a mandated court hearing. This resulted in a warrant of arrest issued to her after being instructed by the Court, the town council said in a Facebook post.

The town council posted this clarification in connection with a recent Facebook post by activist Gilbert Goh on Sunday. Mr Goh stated he was “shocked” to know that the single mother with a 16-year-old son was arrested and held in police lock-up for close to 10 hours before being released.

Mr Goh pointed out that the single mother works as a promoter with a monthly salary of about S$1,000. She told him she couldn’t pay the S$159 monthly instalment and every time she lapsed, the town council sent in a legal reminder which costs S$200, further aggravating her S&CC default.

Mr Goh described it as “akin to paying a loan shark but this time it’s a legalised one”.

In the town council’s latest post, it stated that the woman living in a 5-room flat, has arrears in S&CC for many years before 2016. “Despite attempts at engaging the resident, the Town Council unfortunately had to undertake legal recourse”.

The town council explained that prior to taking legal action against the woman, it had sent out 6 notifications to the residents, and even visited her house twice.

“In this case, the Town Council sent out a total of 6 notifications by post between December 2016 and October 2017 and conducted house visits in August 2016 and November 2017 in our attempt to reach out to the resident,” it said.

After constant engagement with the resident, she made partial payment from the outstanding bills, and agreed on an instalment plan on 19 December 2017. “The Town Council immediately withdrew the court proceedings and updated the Warrant Enforcement Unit on the same day,” it noted.

It added that the woman’s latest instalment plan was made in November last year, and it allowed her to “gradually pay off the arrears while keeping up with the current monthly payment”.

It went on to say that it will work with grassroots partners to help her.

Town Councils must negotiate with residents over prolonged unpaid S&CC

As of April 2018, the State Courts placed in measures to direct town councils to negotiate and engage with the residents who owe S&CC before starting criminal proceedings against them as a last resort.

It is required to issue at least two notices to a resident who does not pay S&CC, before issuing a statutory demand.

It has been said that these protocols will give town councils a “consistent system” of managing these issues, and they will help identify residents who have genuine difficulties in paying S&CC or composition amounts. The town councils can then step in to help or adapt the penalty measures to the residents’ circumstances.

All the town councils engaged by the State Courts had indicated that they are agreeable to the imposed initiatives.

An article by TODAY reported that other than going down the legal route, town councils let needy residents pay off the outstanding amount in instalments, or rope them in to do simple part-time work, including looking out for areas that need to be cleaned or checking for defective items in common areas such as lightbulbs that need to be changed.

However, Marine Parade Town Council chairman Lim Biow Chuan was quoted in the same TODAY report, stating that it takes much “time and manpower resources” to serve three reminder letters and to get property managers to visit residents’ homes to better understand the issue.

Adding that while taking residents to court is only done when there is “no choice”, ultimately, the town council still has “an obligation” to collect the charges for a common pooled fund that is used for estate maintenance.

Mr Lim said: “We can’t have people who don’t pay and (we) do nothing… Just like a management corporation, we owe it as a duty to other people who are paying”.

Separately, the Workers’ Party town council said in 2015 that it has taken steps to collect some of the outstanding S&CC charges, but it will only use court action as the last resort.

In an article by The Straits Times in 2015, then-vice-chairman of Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) Png Eng Huat said that the they will only start legal proceedings “as a last resort after some time has elapsed”.

“From the first reminder right up to the legal letter sent to the resident, there are ample time and opportunities for the resident to make payment or negotiate a payment plan with the Town Council,” he added.

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