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NWC eyeing stronger measures to collect $12b owed by customers

BY ALICIA DUNKLEY-WILLIS Senior staff reporter dunkleya@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, February 04, 2014    

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WITH over $12 billion owed to it by delinquent consumers, hundreds of whom are now before the courts, the National Water Commission (NWC) has warned that it might have to take even harsher steps to recover the arrears.

"Included in the court process is the legal course the commission has where we can take out caveats against properties so a person can be prevented from selling or otherwise utilise their property because of failure to pay their water supply bill; that's a strong provision," corporate public relations manager at the NWC, Charles Buchanan, told the Jamaica Observer in a recent interview.

"We also have provision where the commission can have the property sold to recover the amounts owed. That is even stronger. The commission has indicated that it will be pursuing these; it is something we would rather not pursue, but it is something we may be forced to use," Buchanan said.

"Every month the Revenue Recovery Division has brought dozens of new cases of persons who are being prosecuted for trespassing on the works of the commission and we have also brought dozens of others every month for failure to honour their NWC bills over extended periods of time. There are hundreds of such cases before the courts," Buchanan told the Observer.

In the meantime, he said the NWC, while trying to make its debtors pay, has itself been incurring costs.

"It is a time-consuming and costly strategy... for example, we have incurred costs from our own lawyers having to dedicate a lot of their time to go to court, as well as other employees having to spend a lot of time developing these cases and, as you know, there is a significant backlog in the courts, so it can be quite time-consuming. So you do a prosecution and you have to go to court repeatedly," Buchanan noted.

"In addition, even when the court decision is made, the commission may have to take further civil action to get anything specifically because if the court says 30 days in prison or x fine, that's a payment, as I understand it, to the courts," he said, pointing out that "the issue of the commission getting a court order to say, 'pay over x amount by such time' is another process that itself takes more time".

Admitting that he was "not sure" that the amounts recovered compensated for the legal costs incurred or even covered the full sums owed to the NWC, Buchanan said it is still "a necessary part of our attempt to encourage persons to pay for what they have utilised".

"It's important for us to show that it does not pay, it's wrong, it's embarrassing, it's a crime, that's a large part of what we want to do and to encourage persons to recognise that there is a moral imperative for them to honour their obligations and to not illegally connect to our systems," he added.

Asked the amount owed to date he said, "It's in the billions, over $12 billion, it's a dynamic figure."

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