Efforts on to make the water authority more accountable
It has been on the receiving end of public complaints for months now over its failure to satisfy the most basic need of Barbadian consumers, particularly those in the north and east of the island.
And now the Fair Trading Commission is threatening to take action against the Barbados Water Authority (BWA) for poor delivery of service to customers.
In the wake of recent water woes that have affected mainly St Joseph, St Peter, St Thomas and St Lucy residents, several proposals were discussed during Tuesday night’s second town hall meeting put on by the FTC, also with a view to bringing the BWA in line with other regulated service operators, including providers of electricity and telecommunications.
These include a $50 fine for wrongful or erroneous disconnection if the victim is a householder, and $100 if it is a commercial entity. The rebate would be reflected in a credit in the following month’s bill.
The FTC is also proposing that the BWA be made to pay in cases where reconnection takes more than 24 hours after a customer has settled overdue bills. In this case, a fine of $20 would be applied in instances where a household is affected and $40 for businesses.
Over the past month, the FTC has also been seeking to get public feedback on the matter and is due to end its process of public consultation on Friday.
During Tuesday night’s town hall meeting held at the Barbados Workers Union’s Solidarity House headquarters, the FTC’s Water Analyst Fiona Scantlebury emphasized to the small gathering that “if the Barbados Water Authority fails to meet a target, there will be a monetary compensation for you”.
The FTC’s Director of Utility Regulation Dr Marsha Atherley-Ikechi also explained the difference in the compensation proposed for businesses and households, saying, “for a commercial entity the implications are much more severe”.
However, she said the system of fines was aimed at promoting efficiency while looking out for the best interest of both parties.
“We want to be able to balance the interest of the customer with that of the utility,” she said, adding that in recognition of the critical nature of the water service, “We cannot impose a penalty that is such that would be crippling to the utility.”
Following the consultation, FTC officials will make submissions to the BWA for its consideration and response before implementation.
Within the FTC proposal there are nine Guaranteed Standards of Service for the public to expect from BWA, ranging from refunds of the first month’s water bill for installations done later than 14 days for residential customers and ten days for commercial entities; to a fine of $20 for residential customers and $40 for commercial customers who are issued with their first bill later than 30 days.
The FTC also proposes to introduce a fine of between $15 to $30 when BWA technicians fail to keep a field appointment with a customer.
Once implemented, the FTC proposals will be for three years before review, at which time penalties may change.
“We’re at a point where regulation is new to the utility, and as such we do not intend to go with a very heavy handed approach,” Atherley-Ikechi said.
“We will review after a three-year period to see what works and what doesn’t, where we need to extend our reach, and where we need to drop back a little bit.”
She further explained, “We are not doing it in a vacuum, recognizing that this is a cash-strapped utility. At the same time, we have to begin to set minimum standards because the two go hand in hand. You can trade off service with price . . .. So the idea is to look at standards first and the next step would be to look at tariffs.”
As for concerns that the BWA could increase the cost of its services, FTC Chief Executive Officer Sandra Sealy downplayed suggestions of a possible hike in water rates, while stating that the utility company would be given the opportunity to respond to the proposed standards.
“So if they put a case to the Commission for you to meet this standard . . . then the Commission would evaluate that and make a call as to whether we think that this standard is appropriate . . . or maybe we can hold on that for this year and wait a couple more years before we deal with this standard, or adjust the standard accordingly so that it does not affect the tariffs,” she said.
Added to the nine Guaranteed Standards, there are 12 Overall Standards of Service. Some of the persons attending the town hall meetings asked about Overall Standard 10, which seeks to assure consumers that the quality of water must meet the World Health Organization’s accepted level.
It requires that the water must be checked for turbidity, chlorine residual, faecal coliforms, faecal streptococci, nitrates and total dissolved solids.
One member of the audience, Hallam Hope, expressed concern that no mention was made of testing the water for lead, and was assured that tests would be, and were being done for all contaminants.
Atherley-Ikechi said that FTC would not rely solely on information provided by BWA, but use other Government testing agencies, such as the Environmental Department, and the public health inspectorate.
“What is required is for the customer to call the utility, raise their concerns, [the utility personnel] will come out to them, take a sample away, and then it goes to the Government’s analytical service for testing,” the FTC official said.