ALMOST 18,000 Hunter households could not afford to pay their water bills last year and entered deferred payment plans with Hunter Water.
It is the first time that Hunter Water has reported the figure, and provides more evidence that household budgets are feeling the squeeze.
Financial counsellors and charities told the Herald that the figure was not surprising and reflected the large increase in the number of people seeking financial assistance and guidance.
‘‘We’re seeing more and more people needing assistance every day,’’ Samaritans chief executive Cec Shevels said. ‘‘And rents and rising utilities bills are the most common issue.’’
The data is contained in the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal’s latest report card on Hunter Water.
All up, 17,946 households sought to defer their water bill payments in the 2011-12 financial year.
‘‘That figure includes short time extensions that assist customers with short-term payment difficulties,’’ a Hunter Water spokesperson said.
The report also shows that more than 170 people complained to the NSW Energy and Water Ombudsman about Hunter Water last financial year – the highest number since 2007-08.
But it noted that ‘‘the change in the economic environment and financial impact on customers are contributing to higher rates’’ of complaints.
For every 100,000 customers, Hunter Water received 2.87 complaints – a rate five times higher than Sydney Water, but vastly better than neighbouring Gosford and Wyong.
On a more positive note, the new data shows that Hunter households have reined in the amount of water they use.
The region soaked up 65.7billion litres of water last financial year, down from the 73.4billion litres used two years prior. The difference equates to about 3080 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
In terms of supply continuity, water quality and performance, the report shows that the utility met its key targets in the year to June30, 2012.
Meanwhile, recent rain has done its bit for the Hunter region’s reserves. Grahamstown Dam, the region’s largest, is at 90.6per cent capacity while the region’s overall reserves are at 91per cent of capacity.