British expats living “in the shadow” of upmarket resort Vale do Lobo claim greedy public entities are “milking them” for all they are worth, and making their lives “a living hell”.
Loulé Council and water company Infralobo are joined at the hip in more ways than one. The mayor of the first is the brother-in-law of the man in charge of the second.
Tony and Christine Cooke are not the only ones who think this shows expatriate homeowners “don’t stand a chance” – particularly in this case, which surrounds “astronomic water bills”, based on a premise that even the national regulator has said is bogus.
“The problem is that they’re all in this together,” Tony told us. “They think they can charge what they like to whom they like – and for some unknown reason they think we’re all full of money and should be relieved of it at every opportunity.
“If we don’t win this case, we will be selling up and getting out as fast as we can.
“The whole thing stinks, pure and simple. It’s like living under siege.”
Right now – and as we wrote last month – the Cookes are surviving with one car rammed up against their streetside water meter, to stop Infralobo from cutting off the mains.
Countless other homeowners have not been so “lucky”. Their meters were removed en-masse last month – and those who live here fulltime have been effectively left with the prospect of either paying over the odds for their water, or living like refugees.
One couple tried to reconnect themselves, but found their efforts consistently hijacked every time they left the house.
Others have simply shut the doors on their holiday homes in Vilas Alvas, Vale de Garrão and Quinta Jacinta in disgust, hoping the issue will be sorted by the spring.
The problem, claims Tony, is how much Infralobo will charge for reconnection.
“I don’t even want to think about it,” he said.
For now, Tony, 76, and his wife are living in a state of constant fear. “The stress is horrendous,” he told us. “Reduced as we are to one car in order to secure our own water, we have to plan every day with almost military precision.
“It is a bit like living with the enemy at the door. You have to try all the time to stay ahead.”
The worst of this situation is that the residents have all paid for the water they have used, religiously.
What they haven’t paid for, and what they are locked in legal battle over, is Infralobo’s contention that water bills should reflect the number of bedrooms each property has.
It is a mindset that can add up to €150 on monthly bills, and that has no basis in law, affirms water regulatory authority ERSAR. But as a source for Infralobo told us last month: “There is no entity that can decide whether or not Infralobo is acting legally”.
And in that, the law would appear to be on Infralobo’s ‘side’ – if only by default.
This week, six householders in the battle saw a third court ‘hear’ their case, only to say it was not equipped to make a decision.
Since then, Loulé council’s department of “fiscal executions” has written to the Cookes informing them that interest charges are now being heaped on the money Infralobo claims it is due. If accounts aren’t cleared voluntarily, the council will take legal steps, including resorting to compulsory seizures and liens, explained operational chief Jorge Ramos.
“We are sharing the costs of a lawyer between a whole group of us, so we can but hope,” Tony told us. “But anyone thinking of moving to Portugal for a quiet retirement should think again.
“The very last place they should set their sights on is anywhere under the jurisdiction of Loulé Borough Council,” he added.
To add insult to the many injuries suffered in this 18-month battle, Christine came upon these words when she went to check Infralobo’s website this week – just to be certain that the couple had paid all the water costs (minus bedroom taxes) due.
“Water is vital for life. This statement takes on increasing importance the more we become aware that it is a scarce resource and essential to our survival. Homes and establishments without running water are unthinkable, making the provision of this service in quantity and quality a priority for this company.”
Infralobo has been consistently unavailable for comment on this subject, while a source for Loulé Câmara has told us that she has been instructed to put nothing in writing. “All I can say is that these people can expect significant reductions to the water tariffs in due course” – provided, of course, that they have fully paid up everything the Câmara and Infralobo insist that they owe.
By NATASHA DONN firstname.lastname@example.org