Ombudsman faults errors on water bills

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 December, 2010, 12:00am

Two sets of neighbours paid each other's water bills for years without knowing it because of meter mix-ups that went undetected by the Water Supplies Department.

As a result, the department received a rebuke from the Ombudsman for relying too heavily on developers and contractors to install meters and not checking their work.

The two sets of upstairs-downstairs neighbours in separate housing estates found out about the mistakes only when they checked anomalies in their water bills - in one case uncovering a 13-year-old mistake.

They were among about 100 instances of mixed-up water meters discovered by the department each year - 132 in 2007-08, 111 in 2008-09 and 98 in 2009-10.

In one case, Ombudsman Alan Lai Nin said, two families had been paying each other's bills since their building's developer renewed the meters in 1996.

The mistake was found when a woman kept receiving a HK$900 monthly water bill even after the flat had been vacant for six months.

In another case, a family complained to the department after continuing to be charged HK$1,000 a month for water even after two of its four members had moved out.

The department found the meters had been mixed up between the two neighbours and the family should have been paying only HK$500.

Both families complained to the Ombudsman because they were unhappy with the department's slow response and failure to give a thorough explanation.

Lai attributed the errors to overreliance by the department on developers and contractors who installed and renewed water meters for it.

He said the department failed to supervise their work or verify their numbering of the meters. It simply took the records provided by the contractors to input the information to the data system when it issued water bills, he said.

'I don't mind the government departments contracting out the work. But contracting out work does not amount to contracting out responsibilities. The department still has the responsibility to supervise the work of contractors and verify the information they provided,' Lai said.

The Ombudsman said it would be up to the Water Services Department to decide whether it would carry out a comprehensive random check on the numbering of water meters.

The department said it had started verifying newly installed or renewed meters in view of the Ombudsman's report.

But it said it would be difficult to conduct random checks on buildings across the city as there were as many as 2.7 million water meters.

Contracted out

The number of installations or renewals of water meters contracted out by the department in the five years from 2006: 1.3m

Long period

Of the anomalies discovered by the Ombudsman's investigation, one had been continuing for this many years: 13

Phantom service

The owner of a flat that was vacant for six months kept receiving a monthly water bill of, in HK dollars: $900