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A French-run water utility company has promised to deal with what hundreds of villagers in Armenia regard as unfair water bills sent to them following a series of RFE/RL reports on the issue.

Patrick Lorin, the chief executive of the Armenian Water and Sewerage company that manages most of the country’s water supply and distribution networks, visited the village of Dashtavan in the southern Armenian province of Ararat for that purpose on Friday. He heard complaints from more than 500 mostly low-income households that have been ordered by courts to pay their purported debts for consumed water ranging from 100,000 to 500,000 drams ($260 to $1,300).

Some in the community, which court rulings say owes a total of 39 million drams (more than $100,000) to the utility company, have seen a third of their scanty state pensions deducted over the course of the past several months on account of their water arrears. Most of the villagers now considered as debtors believe that they have been good customers and paid all their bills as requested and that the alleged accumulation of debts is the result of erroneous calculations done by company executives.

The dispute in Dashtavan and several other rural areas in Armenia stems from a controversial application of government regulations under which the households that do not have water meters pay a fixed charge based on the diameter of their pipes on the assumption that they receive water according to a certain schedule agreed between the water supply company and the local administration. Company executives insist that most villagers have been paying only smaller parts of their actual water bills for years, which resulted in the accumulation of huge arrears.

The water utility company, according to its CEO, filed a total of 17,500 claims against allegedly indebted customers in the course of 2010 and 2011 alone.

But speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service the day before his visit to Dashtavan, Lorin effectively acknowledged that in some cases company inspectors might have misled the customers about their actual payment schemes. He promised to look into the matter and try to find ways of settling the problems.

Already in the village, in the presence of the regional governor and top representatives of the company’s local branches, Lorin told villagers that they can always “talk about their debts” to company executives and expect solutions to be suggested to settle their debts. He admitted, however, that very often those necessary settlement schemes would run against certain rules.

Ararat governor Edik Barseghian backed the villagers’ claims that they are being treated unfairly. He said that villagers are paying what they were asked to pay by company executives over a period of time and that their debts were the result of a revision of actual water supply carried out by the company later on.

Eventually, the company’s top executive and his commercial director reached agreement with the governor and local officials that the water debts of the local villager would be recalculated within the next few days.

“For now they will not have to pay a single penny for their debt until this recalculation process is over,” Barseghian said, promising a “positive outcome” in the case. Villagers in Dashtavan expect their debts to be written off.

Meanwhile, people in about two dozen other rural communities, including the central Kotayk province’s Saralanj village, that have found themselves in a similar situation hope that the likely Dashtavan deal will become a precedent also for settling their legal disputes with the company.

The Service for the Mandatory Execution of Judicial Acts told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on Wednesday that there are rulings and enforcement orders on as many as 285 indebted customers owing a total of 96 million drams (nearly $250,000) to Armenian Water and Sewerage.
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