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Water robbery! - NWC bilking customers of more than $20m monthly through late payment fees

Published:Sunday | April 10, 2016 | 4:00 AMRyon Jones
A NWC customer displays her bill outside the company's Marescaux Road, Kingston 5 office, where she had gone to make her payment last Friday.

The National Water Commission (NWC) is pulling in millions of dollars each month from unsuspecting customers who are being charged a late fee even though they paid in full the bill that they had been issued by the State-owned entity.

That's because these customers were issued estimated bills that were lower than the actual bill, which only comes when their meters are finally read.

In adjusting between what was paid by the customer on the estimated bill and what should have been paid based on the actual reading, the NWC applies a late fee if the actual is more than the estimate. This late fee is charged even though the estimated bill was paid in full and the customer was unaware of the actual reading.

This is in breach of the provisions of the Payment Compliance Initiative governing the collection of late payment fees approved by the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) for the NWC.

"This incentive is applicable in all instances in which the amount due on a bill was paid in full on or before the due date. Conversely, the late payment fee is applicable where the payment is made after the due date," the OUR said in response to questions from The Sunday Gleaner.

 

COMPLAINTS RECEIVED

 

"The Consumer Affairs Unit has received complaints regarding the late payment fee being applied to [NWC] customers' bills when a reading is obtained and used to replace a previous estimate.

"We have brought this issue to the NWC's attention and have been advised that this occurrence is as a result of a system flaw which is being corrected. The NWC has also given the commitment that when all such incidents are identified or reported, the necessary actions are taken to reverse the late fee and apply the incentive," added the OUR.

But efforts by our news team to get the NWC to speak to this commitment over the past three weeks were unsuccessful, even as our calculations showed the company could be bilking customers of more than $20 million each month.

A Sunday Gleaner probe has found that with just over 359,000 customers, the NWC issues roughly 179,500 estimated bills each month.

When the actual meter reading is done, the company usually finds that approximately half the estimated bills were lower than the actual reading while the others are higher.

 

NO REWARD FOR PAYING EXTRA

 

For customers whose estimated bills were higher than the actual bill, the NWC makes the adjustment on the following bill, but provides them with no reward for paying more than they should have.

For those whose estimated bills were lower than the actual bill, the NWC adjusts for the amount that should have been paid and slaps on the $250 late charge.

NWC customer Dr Anne-Maria Bankay said she has twice had to pay late fees to the state agency despite having paid the amount she was billed.

According to Bankay, it first occurred last year, with the second occurence taking place last month.

"They didn't know what the actual bill was so they couldn't have sent me the actual bill, so why am I paying a late fee for what I don't know?" argued Bankay.

She said she called NWC customer service department, but a representative said they were not able to access the bill, so they couldn't do anything.

"I went down to National Water Commission myself, like two weeks ago, and the lady said she was going to make a change [manually]. I asked her if I am to expect this to happen again, and she said if it happens, I would have to come in again. They could not assure me that it was not going to happen again," said Bankay.

"Then, she said I am going to have to wait a couple of months before I can get it adjusted, because it is done manually. Thank God it is only $250!"

The overdue amount, according to Bankay, was $973.55 and the current charges were $3,401.91 plus the late payment fee of $250, bringing the total to $4,625.46.

"I pride myself on paying my bill on time and I get the $250, so that annoyed me. So I don't get the $250 and they are charging me a late payment fee," complained Bankay.

 

NOEARLY PAYMENT BENEFIT

 

Another disgruntled NWC customer showed The Sunday Gleaner two bills he received from the company between February and March of this year.

The first bill, which was dated January 22 and was due on February 12, had charges of $2,314.62 which the customer paid in full.

A next bill was then sent for $636.26 with a billing date of February 10 and was to be paid on or before March 1.

The customer, not expecting the second bill, did not notice it, so it appeared as balance brought forward on the next bill dated February 19 and was added to the charges for that period of $2,554.36.

The customer was also charged $250 late fee for the bill of $636.36 and was not credited the $250 for having paid the first bill of $2,314.62 in full before the due date.

When the customer queried the matter with the NWC, he was told that the original bill was estimated and, therefore, when the meter was read and it was determined that more water was used than what was reflected on the estimated bill, the difference was sent as a separate bill.

The customer was also advised that they had to pay the $250 late fee on the second bill of $636.26, as it was not paid before the due date.

Unlike the NWC, the Jamaica Public Service Company, which also imposes a fee for bills paid after the due date, does not impose this charge if an estimated bill is paid in full and on time, even if a reading of the meter shows that the estimate was below the customer's actual consumption.

ryon.jones@gleanerjm.com