Ombudsman to probe water metering, billing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 November, 2010, 12:00am

The Ombudsman received more than 100 complaints a year against the Water Supplies Department for the past three years over its management of water meters.

The good-governance watchdog is launching an investigation into the department's practices.

The investigation will look into its procedures regarding water meters, and the issuing and adjusting of bills.

'There are apparent systemic problems in the arrangements for managing water meters and consumer accounts,' Alan Lai Nin, the Ombudsman, said.

'[There is] a need for improvement in the department's meter reading and billing arrangements in terms of fairness to consumers.'

Among the complaints received, some consumers were unhappy with adjusted water bills a few years after an irregular reading - where accurate or actual measurement could not be obtained because of a faulty or inaccessible meter.

Those who were unhappy with the department's adjustments found they were hard to challenge because of the time that had passed, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Ombudsman said.

The South China Morning Post reported one such case in July last year, when the building management of Phase 1 of Cliffview Mansions in Conduit Road paid HK$220,000 in water bills over two years, when the annual average was only HK$60,000.

The management company, ISS EastPoint One, received an adjusted bill in January 2008 for January 2006-October 2007, asking for HK$100,000 on top of the HK$46,700 already paid.

Other bills followed including one for HK$94,173.30.

The department responded four months after the company contacted it and said the meter was accurate. The problem turned out to be caused by leaky pipes, and the company demanded a refund of HK$170,000.

The department eventually granted a partial refund of HK$57,000.

In most cases, the department conducts meter readings at four-monthly intervals. When the department cannot obtain actual or accurate readings, bills are held over or are issued based on the estimated water use.

However, when accurate readings become available again - either from replacement of a defective meter of the removal of whatever was obstructing it - the department observes readings for a period of time and adjusts the bills to account for the irregularity.

Other complaints received by the Ombudsman concerned the department's arrangements for reading, replacing and testing meters, and communicating with consumers.

A Water Supplies Department spokesman said: 'We welcome the Ombudsman's investigation. We will co-operate fully and will provide comprehensive assistance.

'In the end, we hope to receive useful comments to improve our level of service,' he said, adding that the department had always put customers first.

The Ombudsman invites the public to comment on the issue by post, fax or e-mail before December 13.

Speaking out

The average number of complaints about water meters received yearly by the Ombudsman in the past three years: 100