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Saturday 24 March 2018

Irish Water spends €100k a day on new water meters

€29.7m cost of installation in just nine months

COSTLY: Water meters
COSTLY: Water meters

Mark O’Regan

More than €110,000 a day has been spent installing water meters following the suspension of controversial charges last year, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

New financial records reveal that over a nine-month period 51,700 metres were installed — costing the taxpayer €29.7m.

As part of an agreement reached between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael during government formation talks, water charges were suspended for nine months.

The suspension came into effect on July 1, and the charges were officially in place until March 31 this year.

As of January this year, the total administrative costs — including items such as stamps, envelopes and paper — arising from billing households totalled €13m.

A further €10m was spent on Irish Water’s customer ‘contact centre’ to deal with a range of issues, including customer complaints.

Between August 2013 and January this year, Irish Water installed almost 900,000 domestic meters. Latest data shows six out of 10 households now have meters installed.

Meanwhile, new correspondence obtained by this newspaper reveals the European Commission wrote to the Government last January, warning the roll-out of meters must continue as planned.

In a pointed letter, the Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella told Housing Minister Simon Coveney that a “sustainable and legal outcome” must be reached on the issue.

He also stressed the metering programme must be completed as it is “instrumental” for “the charge on excessive or wasteful use of water to attain its purpose”.

He added: “The consumption of water for normal use should be set at a reasonable level, and the charge for excessive or wasteful use of water should be dissuasive.”

In a statement, the Department of Housing stressed it had no option but to finish the metering programme despite the suspension of charges because it made “more economical sense”.

A spokesperson said the decision protected “the taxpayer and Irish Water customers” as terminating contracts would likely have resulted in huge financial penalties.

Irish Water, meanwhile, pointed out that when the Dail voted to suspend charges in July, “no decision” was made by Government as to whether to end the water metering programme. It also stressed that contracts were in place for the completion of ‘phase 1’ of domestic metering, which was completed at the start of the year.

In March, Irish Water staff were paid bonuses averaging just under €5,000 — or €3.2m in total — despite the fact that the utility has not collected any payments from domestic water users or issued any bills for almost a year.

The company insisted the payments were allowable only for people who achieved “predetermined” company targets, and stressed it was also part of an agreed remuneration structure.

However, the company has now refused to provide a breakdown of the top individual ‘performance related awards’ payments as this would involve “the disclosure of personal information”.

As the majority of roles within Irish Water are “unique”, providing this information could lead to the identification of individual employees — including senior managers — and what they are paid. “This would compromise employees’ personal data,” said a statement.

The Government has approved the priority drafting of legislation that will abolish water charges, except in cases of excessive use.

Refunds to households that paid their water bills will also be provided for.

Housing Minister Coveney brought a memo to Cabinet seeking to have the legislation prioritised so it can be passed before the Dail’s summer recess. Under the planned legislation, the water charges brought in by the former Fine Gael-Labour government are to be discontinued.

There is to be provision for a new levy for domestic customers who use water excessively.

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