A customer complains about a high backbill sent by their water corporation for charges from five years of usage (April 2016)

High bills, Delayed and catch-up bills
Case Number 2015/20700
Outcome Conciliation

The Issue

Mr L contacted EWOV, dissatisfied, after his water corporation sent him a high water backbill. The bill covered charges for usage from the last five years (from 2010 to 2015), which were being recovered because of low estimations. The total water bill was for $3,997.96. There had previously been difficulties accessing the water meter, which was located inside a commercial property. Mr L was the owner of the property, which he rented out, but it was vacant from 2013 to 2014 and re-tenanted in May 2015. Mr L believed that the water corporation had not attempted to obtain an actual reading often enough. In order to resolve the matter, the customer was seeking the water corporation to waive the charges, and to ensure that the meter was read more often for billing.

The Investigation

EWOV initially raised an Assisted Referral in July 2015, however, Mr L recontacted EWOV in late September 2015 and advised he remained dissatisfied with the information provided and the resolution offer made by the water corporation. EWOV escalated the matter to an Investigation and, in response, the water corporation advised that it had already offered to reduce the outstanding balance by 50% (leaving a balance of $1,998.98 owing) and that this amount was overdue since August 2015. It had also started debt collection in September 2015. It advised the bills had been estimated on historical usage, and that the meter could not be read as the property had been locked while vacant for an extended period of time. It stated that the customer had been notified of the access issues, with several cards left at the property requesting that someone contact it about a meter reading but this had not occurred. It also advised that in future, if access was provided it would have no issue reading the meter and issuing bills based on the reads obtained.

The customer remained dissatisfied with the information provided, given there were tenants at the property until 2013. Mr L also believed he was only liable to pay the service to property charges as the owner of that property. In order to assess whether the water corporation’s actions were fair and reasonable, EWOV sought industry practice advice, reviewed the relevant laws and codes and completed a review of the billing issued and the account history.   EWOV reviewed the relevant laws and codes and confirmed that:

  • a water corporation must use reasonable endeavours to keep each customer informed of their obligations under water law, including ensuring that water meters are accessible
  • customers must provide access to the water meter/s at their property
  • water corporations must use their best endeavours to read the water meter on a quarterly basis
  • a water corporation cannot back bill an account for more than 12 months of undercharged usage.

EWOV also obtained industry practice which confirmed that:

  • other water corporations would review the usage from the last actual reading (2010) to the current actual reading (May 2015) and only charge the last 12 months
  • an energy retailer also advised that when this occurred for electricity or gas accounts, it would consider what attempts were made to notify the customer. If no phone calls or letters were sent to the customer advising the need for an actual read, it would consider this a failure of best endeavours and, as a result, would only back bill nine months in line with the Energy Retail Code.

As a result, EWOV sought clarification from the water corporation about how it had calculated the bills issued and how it had used its best endeavours to obtain an actual meter read, including substantiation of the contact made and letters sent to notify the customer of access issues.

The Outcome

As a result of EWOV’s Investigation, the water corporation confirmed that a further credit would be applied of $1,565.34 to the bill, to reduce the backbill to be based on the average bills issued over 12 months. Together with the previous credit of $1,998.98, the outstanding balance was reduced to $433.64 (covering usage to 17 November 2015). A payment extension was also provided to Mr L to make payment in full, with a direct contact at the water corporation provided in case Mr L had any issues making the payment in time. The customer was satisfied with the reduced balance and the explanation of charges provided, and the complaint was closed.

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