One day after the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) embarked on a disconnection drive aimed at recovering close to $1 billion in arrears, Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales yesterday instructed the authority’s executive management to hold its hand for now.
During a visit to one of WASA’s water storage facilities in Mt Hope, Gonzales spoke on the issue which, he said, had left him with deep concerns.
“We were not satisfied that WASA had taken everything into consideration to commence this disconnection drive, especially having regard to the fact that we are in the midst of a global pandemic…and having regard to that, we informed Dr Sealy and the board that their main focus at this point in time is the transformation of WASA.
“We had some serious concerns that this was not properly thought of after hearing directly from him (Dr Lennox Sealy) and therefore, we have given him and the board clear directive that what is the main issue confronting the board at this time is the transformation strategy.”
Gonzales said a disconnection drive will only distract WASA’s board from its main objective of turning around the cash-strapped authority and making it efficient in providing a service.
“I believe this could perhaps cause an unnecessary distraction and I needed to call him to order in that.”
On Thursday, WASA issued a press release stating that it had begun debt recovery against customers who have neither paid their outstanding arrears nor contacted WASA for an agreement to do so.
The debt recovery action started on Wednesday with the disconnection of several customers in Barataria, San Juan and Chaguanas, after numerous attempts to encourage those customers to pay proved futile.
WASA promised to continue similar action in other areas under its act, which gives it the authority to implement several punitive actions to recover payments, including disconnection of service and sale of properties.
The action by WASA led to customers flooding WASA’s offices yesterday to pay their bills.
Gonzales said he had no idea about the disconnections being undertaken.
“I learnt about it after receiving calls from the media and public.”
It was during one of WASA’s transformational meetings yesterday with executive director Dr Lennox Sealy and its board that Gonzales said he raised the issue.
He said Sealy explained that WASA undertook the drive to target customers who have been in arrears for years and owed the authority significant sums of money.
However, having heard from Sealy, Gonzales said they were not satisfied with WASA’s move.
Gonzales made it clear that the day-to-day affairs of WASA fall into the hands of Sealy and its board, who are not obligated to consult with him on operational matters but to ensure government policies are adhered to.
“The issue of disconnection is an operational issue WASA is responsible for and therefore, they have no duty, more or less, to get my approval to undertake a disconnection drive,” he said.
Asked by Guardian Media if he was therefore overriding Sealy’s authority, Gonzales said, “it was not about overriding the decision of the executive director. It is all about expressing our views and expecting them to act accordingly.”
Gonzales reiterated that the main focus of the executive management is to focus on WASA’s transformation process, which has to be delivered to Cabinet in the shortest possible time.
This process will outline WASA’s restructuring strategy and a new organisational structure for the organisation.
Asked if he took into consideration that many people are struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic and could not pay their bills, Gonzales said, “Yes.”
“And we have to look at it and we have to express our concerns. We cannot direct the board and executive director on operational issues. But I think it is well within our domain to express our view on how we believe things are being dealt with and we did express our views and we expect the executive director and the board to act accordingly, taking into consideration our concerns.
“I can tell you that our concerns are very much in alignment with our members of the board.”
What was Sealy’s reaction to their concerns?
“He understood our concerns,” Gonzales said.
He said the issue of WASA’s debt will be taken care of in the restructuring process and at the appropriate time.
WASA, Gonzales said, is owed $950 million by 35,000 delinquent customers.
The authority has over 400,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers on its database.
The minister pleaded with bad paying customers to settle their bills.
Gonzales said customers can’t expect the service to be improved if they don’t pay their bills, pointing out T&T pays the lowest water rates in the world.
The fact that WASA’s arrears have been increasing rather than decreasing, Gonzales said, was “scandalous” and unacceptable.
He said the reason why customers are owing the authority “is that WASA has not been doing enough to enforce the law to ensure that people pay their bills. WASA has not been doing a good job over the years of collecting their rates and because of that, people don’t see it as a priority. That is why someone can go for ten years without paying their bill.”
Asked if WASA will offer an amnesty to errant customers, Gonzales said those are operational matters and if WASA requires the approval of the Government to do an amnesty, then they are free to make a recommendation to him as the line minister, following which he would consult with his Cabinet colleagues to make a decision.
He said WASA’s act has no provision to grant an amnesty.
However, if they believe it is something worth pursuing, the act can examine the issues.
The issues in WASA, Gonzales said, are all connected.
“The reason why people are not getting an efficient water supply…they are on a water schedule, it is because the utility company is not financially viable…because they (WASA) are not collecting its rates, the tariffs are extremely low and has to depend on the state for subventions to survive.”
If the public wants an efficient water supply, Gonzales said it would require hundreds of millions of dollars which would have to be obtained through loans.