Tue | Jul 23, 2024

BILL BATTLE

Homeowner fights $530K NWC charge for unoccupied house in St Catherine

Published:Wednesday | June 19, 2024 | 12:13 AMKimone Francis/Senior Staff Reporter
A vehicle entering the National Water Commission premises on Marescaux Road in Kingston.
A vehicle entering the National Water Commission premises on Marescaux Road in Kingston.

A $530,000 National Water Commission (NWC) bill generated for an unoccupied house in New Harbour Village, St Catherine, has left the homeowner “distressed” amid her inability to move in. Sylvia Saunders said the state-run entity sent her a text...

A $530,000 National Water Commission (NWC) bill generated for an unoccupied house in New Harbour Village, St Catherine, has left the homeowner “distressed” amid her inability to move in.

Sylvia Saunders said the state-run entity sent her a text message in November 2021, days after she received her regular zero consumption bill, informing her about the half-million-dollar charge.

She said the NWC indicated that the property had a leak between September 8 and October 7. NWC also said, after the testing of its smart meter at the property, it was discovered that the device had been “under-registering”, a finding which it said made the bill “payable”.

However, Saunders, an accountant, has countered this report, arguing that she did not commission the fixing of any leak and was puzzled by the NWC’s stance.

Further, she said the lock-off was and had always been activated, except for whenever NWC meter readers visited the property and switched it on.

Saunders said she protested the bill and was told to pay the usual amount and file a complaint.

She said this was done, but lamented that after close to three years, the matter has remained unresolved. She said the NWC is insisting that she settle the outstanding balance after a team from the company visited and concluded that a toilet was the source of the leak.

“I cannot find it within myself to pay a dollar on the bill because I did not use the water. It’s like telling me to admit to a crime I did not commit,” Saunders told The Gleaner on Monday.

Frustrated, she said she turned to both the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) and the Office of the Public Defender but was told after several conversations that NWC would have to first investigate the matter and present a formal ruling.

If Saunders remained dissatisfied, the OUR said she could write to the regulatory body requesting its intervention.

It said it would continue to monitor the case but would “take no further action” until after the aforementioned steps were taken, according to a May 2024 email seen by The Gleaner.

“My house is there and I cannot do anything. Nobody is responding to me. The OUR cannot respond and the public defender cannot respond. They (NWC) know the rules and they are playing the rules to their advantage,” Saunders said.

WITHHOLDING FORMAL REPORT

She accused the NWC of deliberately withholding a formal report on the matter, noting that, in the absence of such a report, state agencies tasked to assist her, as the consumer, cannot.

“This has caused me a lot of stress and distress and sleepless nights. I have a child and cannot put a roof over his head if I wanted to because Water Commission is preventing that from happening. I cannot pay for what I did not use and half of a million dollars is a lot of money.

“How can a country allow a system to operate in such a manner with so many consumers? Other people are having the same problem and many of them are forced to take the payment plan because they live at the premises and cannot do without the water. It is disheartening,” Saunders said.

Saunders is the sixth NWC customer to report a “questionable” bill to The Gleaner since September last year.

In an emailed response to The Gleaner, the NWC said it has been in regular contact with Saunders since 2021 following a meter reading that was done at her property on October 11, 2021.

It said the reading of 597 cubic metres was rechecked two days later and the supply lock-off was closed as a courtesy and to prevent any further usage or wastage of water because the property appeared vacant at the time.

NWC said the actual reading was verified on its smart meter.

Thereafter, it said the water consumption of 589m2, representing a sum of $530,366.40 was added to her account, and the bill was printed on November 11, 2021.

“The increased usage during the period September 8, 2021 to October 7, 2021 was captured on the NWC’s smart meter that showed there was continuous flow of water through the meter, which is consistent with a leak during that period,” NWC said.

It said in addition to the initial checks, an inspection at the property was conducted in the presence of Saunders.

The NWC said it was advised that the property was sometimes used and that this was supported by previous readings and confirmed by Saunders.

“Following that inspection, the smart meter was subsequently removed, tested at NWC’s accredited Meters and Instrumentation Laboratory, and proven to be in good working condition. An offer was also made for Ms Saunders to witness a second test, but she refused the offer.

“The NWC has contacted Ms Saunders on numerous occasions, and multiple departments have been involved, attempting to resolve the matter as amicably as possible. Ms Saunders has been advised of the NWC’s findings, which have also been shared with the Office of the Public Defender and the Office of Utilities Regulation based on the customer’s invitation for their involvement,” said NWC.

It said it has offered Saunders a long-term payment arrangement, and a new smart meter was installed at the property.

“The NWC remains open and committed to assisting Ms Saunders with her account and having her supply restored,” NWC said.

kimone.francis@gleanerjm.com