Sat | Jun 15, 2024

$3m water bill drowns NWC customer with concerns

Published:Monday | September 25, 2023 | 9:31 AMKimone Francis/Senior Staff Reporter
NWC bill in April.
NWC bill in April.
NWC bill in May.
NWC bill in May.
Foster’s August NWC bill.
Foster’s August NWC bill.
1
2
3
4

A man who received a National Water Commission (NWC) bill for $3.1 million, and has flagged it as a billing error, is prepared to challenge the state agency in court after it insisted that the “charges are deemed accurate” and must be paid. Donald...

A man who received a National Water Commission (NWC) bill for $3.1 million, and has flagged it as a billing error, is prepared to challenge the state agency in court after it insisted that the “charges are deemed accurate” and must be paid.

Donald Foster, a Jamaica-born Canadian who manages a two-bedroom house in Portmore, St Catherine, the property at the centre of the issue, has accused the NWC of “extortion”.

The house is occupied by his deaf/mute sister and her 14-year-old son. It is owned by his deceased father.

The man told The Gleaner that he received estimated bills between October 2022 and May this year, an eight-month period in which the NWC sent him an average billing amount of between $4,200 and $4,800 monthly.

He said the bill he received for the March-April cycle was for approximately $4,133 and also reflected a balance brought forward of -$3.55.

Foster said the next bill he received for the April-May cycle had a balance brought forward of $2,726,692.94. The bill had current charges of $422,778.50 and totalled $3,149,471.44.

In June, when the utility company changed the meter on the premises, Foster said he received his first actual reading which was in line with all his previous monthly bills.

He told The Gleaner that although all his bills indicate that they were estimates up to May, the NWC maintained that it carried out a reading of the meter in May.

“I can tell you that I don’t intend to pay it,” he asserted.

Still, in an email thread between the NWC and Foster, which was seen by The Gleaner, the water company said the details of the account were revisited, carefully scrutinised and the reconciliation requested by him revealed that the charges are deemed accurate.

However, the NWC said an actual meter reading was not obtained over six months, from October 2022 until April 2023.

The entity said that, in five instances, it found that the meter was covered and when the meter became accessible the reading collected indicated the possibility of an anomaly.

NO FAULT OF NWC

“Note that although the meter was not accessible, hence no fault of the National Water Commission (NWC) why it was not read; we are not seeing where such occurrences were communicated to the occupants, and as such, we will honour our commitment to not giving more than two consecutive estimated bill and will apply the requisite compensation,” the NWC said in the email to Foster.

The NWC said the meter’s daily activity log was retrieved and that the log recorded that there was an error alarm for leakage and continuous flow on the premises from October 31, 2022, through to February 14, 2023.

The NWC said an accuracy test was carried out on the meter, witnessed by a representative of Foster’s, and the device passed the test.

“Suffice to say the meter accurately registered the volume of water that passed through it. We, therefore, have no premise of an internal error on which to reduce the charges billed to the account,” the NWC said, noting that it was not averse to discussing a mutually beneficial settlement of the stated amount.

But Foster has maintained that the meter was defective and that there was no leak at the premises.

He said that last May a certified plumber was hired and he concluded that there were no leaks. Foster said the plumber also observed that the meter was spinning continuously when tapped. He said video evidence was sent to NWC as well as an official report.

Foster said he was told by the NWC that he had to pay $10,000 for any inspection to be done. He said this was paid on June 23, 2023, but before the meter was replaced he received the $3.1-million bill.

“Inspection was carried out on the property by agents of the NWC and the verbal determination was made that there were no leaks and the pump should be replaced,” he said.

He said he was shocked to receive a letter indicating that tests were carried out on the previous meter and no defect was found.

Foster said no remediation work has been done at the house, but the leak identified by NWC has “miraculously disappeared”.

“All of this is suspicious. Let me put it in context; $2.7 million or $3 million, whichever the figure, is CAD$25,000. That is not chicken feed. They have said they can negotiate. I am not going to negotiate. We call this extortion,” Foster charged, adding that he is prepared to defend his position in court.

“This is serious. How many other people have they ripped off through things like this?” he questioned.

The Gleaner queried the matter via emailed questions which the NWC acknowledged on Friday. Yesterday, the utility company said while there was no existing leak at the point at which it conducted its investigation, the customer had been undertaking renovations and “was alerted to the possibilities of leaks during these kinds of works”.

The OUR, in an emailed response to Foster’s complaint, said it serves as an avenue of appeal, and, as such, utility providers are to be afforded the opportunity to resolve complaints from their customers.

The OUR said that the written response from the NWC was to be provided to Foster within 30 working days on the matter.

“Upon receipt of the response from NWC, if you remain dissatisfied you can then write to the OUR and request our intervention,” the regulatory body said.

kimone.francis@gleanerjm.com