Council to hand over Westmeath’s water services to centralised body

Westmeath County Council is to lose its responsibilities for water services from January 1 as the State centralises these under a single body called Irish Water (IW ).

However a new regional office planned for Mullingar could provide up to 40 jobs.

This was revealed in a report given to the council this week, September 23, in the resumption of the monthly meeting which had to be extended into a second shift after a five-hour marathon on the draft County Development Plan couldn’t be concluded last week.

One of the most contentious revelations made by the now outgoing director of water services, David Hogan, was that from January 1 all water service queries, complaints, and emergencies must be made to a centralised call centre in Cork.

Cllr Paddy Hill felt this was a bad idea, and told an anecdote of a recent exchange he had with another call centre where he was asked: “Where’s Mullingar?”

“How will somebody in Cork find Castletown-Finea or Castlepollard if they don’t know where Mullingar is?” he posited.

“This is just another example of centralisation, and taking away power from local authorities,” he added.

Mr Hogan accepted there would be teething problems for the beginning of the new regime, and warned the members: “The first complaints will be to your phones”, but explained that this process took the UK 14 years to implement, while the Irish Republic is attempting to do it in an ambitious two.

He offered members the silver lining of the possibility of new jobs at the as yet to be located new regional IW office, but conceded many of these positions would be simple transfers from within the existing water services department at the local authority, and couldn’t say how many new jobs would be created.

He revealed that Westmeath has 27,500 domestic, and a further 2,500 commercial customers who are already being metered, and that the council would retain supervision of its group water schemes.

He confirmed that the recently enacted legislation on the issue would prohibit the disconnection of domestic customers for non-payment of water bills, but would allow for IW to restrict supply to such defaulters.

He told how the call centre in Cork is only dealing with metering queries at the moment, but that “from January 1 all queries on water matters must go through here”.

“Irish Water will then refer queries to the local authorities for action. There will be a significant change for the workforce on the ground. All work will be tracked by hand-held devices,” he said.

The local authority will continue to read the meters and process payments, but bills will be issued centrally by IW.

Having completed a survey on 72 per cent of domestic users to locate their stopcocks, Mr Hogan predicted the start of the installation of domestic water meters in the first quarter of 2014, which will lead to “universal charging by 2015”.

Cllr John Dolan enquired about the retention of local knowledge, and said that such staff “should be minded very carefully”. He was supported in this by councillors Frank McDermott and Aidan Davitt.

Mr Hogan revealed the IW annual expenditure was expected to be in the region of €250m, but that it would require an estimated €600m per annum for capital investment.

“This is an enormous task, and will require a huge amount of goodwill, but it is what the Government has set down, and the challenge for each local authority is to meet this,” he said.

Acting county manager Barry Kehoe told the meeting he believed “the loss of water services is significant, and the loss of control to the local authority is a pity”.

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