Water bill complaints flood in

A Prospect man’s ordeal with a $2,325 one-month water bill has drawn a flood of complaints from Water Authority customers that have also received similar, sky-high bills.

Garry Southway was left seething after he was billed for almost 100,000 gallons of water use in October, despite no leaks being found on his property and an authority inspector describing the claimed use as impossible, the Compass reported on 20 February.

After reading the story, George Town resident Ben Webster wrote to the Compass to detail his frustration with the way the authority handled his complaints after receiving an almost $2,000 monthly water bill in mid-2008.

The huge bill was for a period when his family’s George Town home had been empty for half the month and had only two people in it for the other half. Mr. Webster complained that the bill was ‘impossibly high’. He received a disconnection notice two days later.

‘It was clear that all they wanted was my money,’ he said in an email to the Compass. To date he has never had a formal response to his written complaint from any member of the authority’s management – a situation he described as ‘wholly unsatisfactory and unprofessional.’

Like Mr. Southway, Mr. Webster was told that, under the Water Authority Law, unless his meter was shown to be defective, the bill would stand – an approach that led Mr. Southway to accuse the Water Authority of ‘hiding behind the law.’

‘The Authority seems to have adopted a policy of burying their heads in the sand when faced with complaining customers,’ Mr. Webster said. ‘I know of no other civilised country where life-preserving water supplies can be disconnected so readily for missing a payment – in one instance they actually did this to us while we were at home and the missed payment was a fault of their billing system,’ he said.

‘There is a stubborn disregard for human safety and dignity and no apparent consideration of the use of warning letters, restricted flow valves or other less dramatic measures available to the authority.

‘I have been told by several friends … that this problem is more widespread than one might imagine. I lend my voice to those who wish to make a noise about this,’ Mr. Webster said.

American couple Wayne and Karen Oldenburger, whose water bill inexplicably jumped from an average of $45 to $458 in a few months, said ‘it helps to know we are not alone,’ after reading of Mr. Southway’s plight. They were left feeling ‘helpless’ after being told they would have to prove they did not use the claimed amount of water if their meter was found to be accurate.

Their two-bedroom Pease Bay duplex was empty for most of the time, and no leaks were found on their property. The authority had been doing works in the area at the time, they noted.

‘We have been treated with respect by customer service at the Water Authority,’ the couple said in a letter to the Compass. ‘They appear to believe us and to be aware that we did not use the amount of water the meter showed.’ But they added: ‘We have been upset and stressed that we will be held responsible for the water usage.

Brendan Sherlock emailed the Compass to say the exact same scenario that Mr. Southway described happened to him in 2003, resulting in a $2,800 monthly water bill.

‘I was told my meter would be sent off island to check its accuracy … no defects were found, of course, and the inspector found no leaks on my property either … a supposed mystery for which they demanded I foot the entire bill,’ he said.

No special treatment

In a letter to the editor, Mr. Sherlock questioned whether ‘connected Caymanians’ would have been expected to pay the same bill – a suggestion that drew the ire of Caymanians who said they were treated no better.

Deborah Bodden said she certainly didn’t get any special treatment when the monthly water bill for a barber’s shop she owns in Bodden Town jumped from about $150 to just under $700 in mid-2007.

A plumber could find no leaks, nor was any fault found with her meter and payment was demanded. Again, the experience was one marked by poor customer service.

‘There is just nothing you can do,’ she said. ‘You either pay up or get disconnected.’

Like other customers, Ms Bodden said she was not told that she could take the matter up with the authority’s board as well as the Office of the Complaints Commissioner.

Valerie Akow could also attest to getting no special treatment after the water bill at her Prospect residence spiked in early 2008. Like others, she had been on holiday, no leaks were found at her property and her water meter was found to be working properly.

‘We also paid the ridiculous bill and moved on,’ she said in an email to the Compass, adding it was ‘amazing’ that the bill returned to normal the very next month.

WA: bills accurate

Following these new complaints the Compass again contacted the Water Authority for a response. While she would not comment on individual cases, Customer Service Manager Joanna Welcome-Martinez denied customers have any reason to doubt the accuracy of their water bills.

Asked whether it is possible that Water Authority works could have affected customers’ water meter readings, Ms Welcome-Martinez simply said ‘no’ in an emailed response to questions.

She would not say how many times in the past five years water meters have been found to be inaccurate or faulty, commenting ‘this information is in our system but currently not readily available.’ She also would not say how many times in recent years the authority has amended or averaged a customer’s bill.

The Compass also asked about widespread complaints that the authority’s management had been unprofessional and had ignored customer complaints.

‘We value our customers and do our best to ensure that customers’ complaints are addressed promptly and professionally,’ Ms Welcome-Martinez said. ‘Obviously, it is not always easy to satisfy customers whose request for reduced bills after leaks or unusual water usage is declined and they are required to pay the bill.’

She added: ‘Customers who are not satisfied with Management’s decision may request that the matter be reviewed and dealt with by the Water Authority Board or the Complaints Commissioner.’

For his part, Mr Southway said his complaints to the authority were finally acknowledged after the Compass’s 20 February story. For the first time since receiving the $2,325 bill in November 2008, Mr. Southway received an explanation from the authority of his options for contesting the bill.

He said he now plans to appeal to the authority’s board. He has also been in contact with the Office of the Complaints Commissioner over the whopping bill.

Acting Complaints Commissioner Susan Duguay emphasised that complaints to her office do not necessarily have to be about a contested water bill – customers can also complain if they feel they have been mistreated.

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