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Minister of Public Utilities Marvin Gonzales, right, chats with Paramin residents during a visit to the area earlier this month.

A major shake-up is expected to take place soon at state-owned Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA), as Minister of Public Utilities Marvin Gonzales moves to make the organisation efficient come 2021.

Part of the restructuring exercise may lead to job losses, a cut in overtime, an overhaul of the management, and will include the introduction of technology to detect leaking pipelines and low water pressure in communities.

The disclosure came from Gonzales last week, just days after a detailed report on WASA’s lingering issues along with recommendations to transform the beleaguered organisation into a productive and profitable one was submitted to Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley for review. For decades, WASA has been plagued with a host of problems that no government has been able to address.

In September, Rowley appointed a Cabinet sub-committee chaired by Gonzales and included ministers Donna Cox, Pennelope Beckles and Franklin Khan to look into the operations of WASA and come up with a comprehensive plan to turn around the cash-strapped company.

Gonzales, who did not reveal the content of the report, said he was dissatisfied with WASA’s service to communities, lack of staff accountability, hefty overtime bills, and the million-dollar bonuses paid out to workers. He is also unhappy that WASA is facing mounting debts and a staggering $600 million owed to contractors which cannot be accounted for by the authority.

Gonzales, who assumed office in August, said he never anticipated WASA to be in such “a bad and chronic state.”

He said WASA which was operating on “autopilot”, is “dysfunctional” and in a “crisis”.

The minister said a lot of things taking place at the authority were “unacceptable and worrying” as paying customers deserve a reliable water supply.

Misled by manager, some not doing their jobs

Gonzales said he had solid evidence that some of WASA’s managers were not doing their jobs.

A month ago, Gonzales said he asked WASA’s technical staff to find out why Paramin residents were not receiving water. First, he was told some issues needed to be sorted out. Then he got a report stating that everything was OK.

“The last report I got was that the entire community was getting an efficient water supply. But the residents kept telling me a different story, they were still not getting water.”

Realising something was wrong, Gonzales said he visited Paramin with a WASA management team only to find out from residents that their taps had been dry for weeks.

“In other words, I was being misled by the management of WASA as to the true situation taking place on the ground. Can you imagine if the Prime Minister had asked me what was the situation in Paramin? I would have reported to him what was reported to me by senior management in WASA.”

This, he said, was unacceptable.

He said some managers working in various regions had not been informing their bosses about problems on the ground so corrective action can be taken.

Gonzales said equally shocking was that no disciplinary action had been taken against the manager who had deceived him.

Asked if he was in support of workers being suspended or reprimanded for failing to carry out their duties, Gonzales said he preferred to hold people accountable for their actions or lack thereof.

“In any serious organisation or country, he (manager) would have been placed on suspension already. If you cannot trust the information provided to you, it paints a very dark picture as to what you are dealing with in that organisation. The problem inside of WASA is bad management.”

He said if these issues continue at WASA “we will only be spinning top in mud.”

Gonzales said the time had come “to take the bull by its horns.”

Management operating in silos

Gonzales revealed that WASA’s outdated organisational structure must be reviewed and streamlined.

“There are too many levels of management…there are about seven or eight levels of management which makes it almost a nightmare to manage. It’s difficult to send information down from the top and vice versa because of the various levels. They all operate in silos. There is no interconnectivity.” WASA has 50 managers.

As a citizen, Gonzales said he was “very disappointed that such an important organisation as WASA had reached to this level where it cannot provide an efficient service to the people of this country.” He said he was fed up of complaints from communities, customers, citizens, and MPs about WASA’s poor supply.

“From the Prime Minister straight down. The Prime Minister has to complain to his Minister of Public Utilities that there are areas in Carenage and his constituency not getting water. I find that is most embarrassing.”

Asked if we can expect a managerial shake-up at WASA soon, Gonzales replied,

“There must be a managerial shake-up. It’s impossible to manage the company with this (current) managerial structure. It cannot be business as usual.”

Going forward, Gonzales said workers will also be graded on their performance.

Gonzales said he has no intention of playing politics with WASA and Public Services’ Association president Watson Duke, as all constituencies have been suffering for water for too long.

“I don’t have time for that. What has to be done will be done.”

WASA overstaffed, workers must be held accountable

Gonzales dismissed reports of WASA being privatised but admitted the organisation is overstaffed. He said WASA’s staff to management ratio was very high when compared to international water companies and the matter must be looked into.

“I have seen documents and a number of reports during this investigation that WASA is overstaffed. We have to look at it. All the reports point to the fact that WASA is overstaffed.

“But this is something I am certain we will have to look at. It is something you would have to tread on gingerly, as you are talking about people’s bread and butter.”

Gonzales said he knows that workers are very concerned whether or not they would have their jobs in 2021.

A 2012 report compiled by WASA showed that in an attempt to get funding from the Inter-American Development Bank, one conditionality was that the authority undertakes an urgent staff rationalisation exercise. This was done by the previous People’s Partnership government.

Gonzales said WASA needed to get 2,500 of its 5000 employees out of the organisation. He said 1,000 employees accepted VSEP which “cost the people of this country $400 million.”

By 2015 however, Gonzales said, WASA’s workforce returned to its original figure of 5,000.

“In my view, WASA has been operating without strategic guidance. If you can get management right in WASA to hold people (workers) accountable for their respective regions, 60 to 70 per cent of the problems at the organisation can be dealt with.

“We have to change the philosophy in which we approach the management of a critical sector like WASA. In this country, if you don’t hold people accountable it’s ole mas and J’Ouvert morning every single day.

“People must be held accountable and once you start to go down that road, I can assure the people of T&T you will see an improvement in your water supply.”

Illegal connections pervasive in T&T

Gonzales’ visit to Paramin also unearthed that several residents had illegal water connections.

“These illegal connections have been preventing water from going to legitimate customers. Illegal connections in the country are very pervasive.”

Gonzales said he mandated WASA’s new board headed by Dr Lennox Sealy to undertake an audit of WASA’s legitimate customers and identify those who have been illegally obtaining water so they can become paying customers.

If they fail to comply, they will be disconnected, he added.

“The evidence is that 40 per cent of the water WASA produces is not accounted for as a result of leaks and illegal connections which is a loss of revenue and wastages taking place.”

WASA produces 220 million gallons of water daily. While WASA loses millions of gallons of water annually through ageing infrastructure, Gonzales said installing new pipelines would only solve part of the problem.

He said for deprived communities to get a regular water supply WASA has to provide technological and pressure management support.

“You can put in new lines, but if you do not have proper water pressure management, the pipes are going to rupture.”

He said WASA has to invest in technology which can inform its workers when there is insufficient water or too much pressure in their system or a leaking pipeline.

WASA’s $90 million overtime bill

Gonzales said in the report of the Cabinet sub-committee, “we have outlined a work programme.”

He said the first thing WASA has to do is provide water to communities according to its schedule and rebuild customers’ trust.

“You can come with the biggest plan to transform WASA if that plan does not have the rebuilding of trust, then that plan will go nowhere.”

Another bugbear, Gonzales said, was WASA’s $90 million yearly overtime bill.

Each month, WASA pays $91 million in wages to its employees.

“And you are spending $8 million annually in all kinds of bonuses and allowances. Yet still, you are complaining that you don’t have money to buy simple plumbing tools to do the job. The issue is not money. The issue is management. $90 million in overtime is ridiculous.”

He said this issue stemmed from the collective bargaining agreement negotiated between the unions and WASA.

“WASA is a 24-hour operation. How can you negotiate a collective bargaining agreement on an 8 am to 4 pm work basis?… That anything after 4 pm is deemed to be overtime.”

Bonuses not tied to performance

Gonzales said he discovered that WASA paid bonuses to workers who did not utilise their sick leave.

“But you don’t have the documentary evidence to suggest or to point to the fact that person A or B was on the job at a particular point in time.

“Who pays a bonus for persons not taking sick leave?”

He said these bonuses were not tied to performances which makes “it a free-for-all at the organisation.”

The question: Should an underperforming state enterprise pay bonuses to employees?

“If bonuses are tied to performances that is a different story. I am all about supporting and paying bonuses to employees who perform and when there is an improvement in services,” Gonzales said.

He disclosed that WASA’s employees receive far better salaries compared to workers in the utility sector.

Over the last decade, he said, the Government had pumped $21 billion into WASA.

“What have we gotten for $21 billion?” he asked.

WASA received $1 billion in the 2021 fiscal package as opposed to the $1.6 billion it had requested.

“A lot of the monies going into WASA are not going into items that can result in an improvement of service to the people.”

Recently, the Regulated Industries Commission (RIC) advised that they began a price review process for WASA.

The process involved three stages with the RIC publishing its final determination after reviewing all comments and concerns raised during public consultations.

WASA’s last rate increase was in 1993.

Gonzales said the role of the RIC is not about increasing rates but having benchmarks to ensure the efficient delivery of the utility service.

“In looking for a tariff increase for water in T&T the process entails WASA producing a comprehensive business plan to the RIC. So, it is not about getting up one morning to raise the rate. The RIC will not approve an increase in tariff if WASA does not demonstrate how it will improve its inefficiencies. You cannot ask people of T&T to pay more for water and that money will be used to fund inefficiencies.”

$4 billion in debts, WASA unable to verify $600 million owed to contractors

He said the Government would have to make tough decisions for WASA to become financially sustainable as it debts stood at $4 billion.

“Then we have another nightmare within the organisation, nearly $600 million of unrecorded liability, meaning that $600 million in debts owed to contractors, with WASA not having the capacity to verify those bills due to mismanagement. Some of these contractors have taken WASA to court and WASA has been losing those matters because the records at WASA cannot substantiate the debt. It puts WASA at a disadvantageous position.”