HK$146,000 bill for water supplies revised to HK$39
Nearly 33,000 overcharged bills were settled by the Water Supplies Department in the past three years, amounting to a total of HK$38 million, the Office of the Ombudsman has found.
From April 2005 to last October, the ombudsman said that of some 85,000 complaints received about water bills being too high, 32,945 were valid. The overcharges ranged from 18 per cent to nearly 3,700 times.
The overcharges were attributed to defective meters, incorrect meter reading and human error.
In the most extreme case, a laundry service was charged HK$146,447 one month in 2005, but after the shop complained, the Water Supplies Department investigated and revised the bill to HK$39.60.
The office also found that although 1.2 million water meters had been in use for more than 12 years, the average meter life, some were 20 years old.
The department's billing system is under a computerised customer care and billing system, which estimates the consumption and sends bills to about 2.68 million accounts.
'The computerised system had a faulty checking system,' Ombudsman Alice Tai Yuen-ying said. 'It will report a suspected faulty record, but there isn't enough staff at the department to follow up the reports.'
The ombudsman said a bill of HK$117,918 to a household was withheld by the system's first- and second-level checks, but it was finally sent because the staff did not follow up the fault checks.
After a complaint was filed, the revised bill was HK$288.50.
The ombudsman suggested the department improve manpower planning, staff training and customer service to handle the complaints.
'We cannot rule out the possibility that some bills overcharged just a bit, and the customers might not notice,' Ms Tai said. 'We advise everyone to be mindful when they pay the bills and check it with the department if they have any inquiries.'
A department spokesman said it had accepted all the ombudsman's recommendations and had apologised for inconvenience caused to customers. He emphasised that customers had not actually overpaid a combined HK$38 million as customers who had had valid complaints finally paid less.
The department also said it would repay any overpayments as long as the complaint was filed.
The spokesman said the main reason that bills were sent seeking payments that were too high was a lack of people to monitor the computerised system when it first went into effect in 2005. He maintained the problem had since been resolved.
As for faulty meters, the spokesman said: 'By 2011, we will have replaced 1.2 million water meters which have been in use for more than 12 years.'
He also said the number of disputes last year was half that of 2006, though he provided no figures.
Customers may call the department's hotline 2824 5000 for bill inquiries or to request a review.