POSTSCRIPT / July 18, 2013 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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MWSS is on whose side on water rates question?

HOT OR COLD: If the words of MWSS Administrator Gerardo Esquivel were water flowing out of the tap, one would not know readily if they were hot or cold.

Many listeners of the boss of the Manila Waterworks and Sewerage System are confused if he is for or against consumers, if he is really against or secretly in favor of the passing on to the public of taxes that should be borne by MWSS’s water supply concessionaires.

With the public outcry against the projected raising of water rates, how would Esquivel be mentioned if President Noynoy Aquino again blamed other people for his administration’s failures in his State of the Nation Address on Monday? Assuming he is worth a mention.

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RISING EXPECTATIONS: Thanks to militant groups which exposed the pass-on-taxes, MWSS top honchos seem to be singing the same refrain as the public: “No” to rate hike, investigate the concession terms, and find out if a refund to consumers is in order.

Intended or not, MWSS’s doublespeak has raised expectations that consumers will not be squeezed dry by the concessionaires Manila Water and Maynilad, that there will be no water rate increase in the meantime, and that the rates can even go down.

Can the MWSS meet the expectations it has built up, or has it just set up the public for a major disappointment?

Are the waterworks bosses – Administrator Esquivel and Chief Regulator Emmanuel Caparas — really on the side of the public on this issue?

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SHOWDOWN LOOMS: Concessionaires Manila Water and Maynilad have taken a firm public stand. In media ads, they affirmed that they have not done anything illegal and that they will follow the “process” set forth in their concession agreement.

The firms said there are enough safeguards in the agreement to make it difficult, if not impossible, for MWSS to unilaterally impose its will as far as water rates are concerned.

Their invoking the “process” is notice that they will put up a good legal fight – and win it.

Will Esquivel and Caparas allow this “process” to work in favor of the concessionaires? They must clarify if they did not help whip up public anger just to create a distraction.

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EQUIVOCATION: Esquivel and Caparas must tell the public where their hearts lie and where the controversy is headed.

Some of their recent pronouncements have not been reassuring. For instance, Esquivel said on prime time radio that the recovery of corporate income taxes by the concessionaires is legal and covered by the agreement.

Caparas himself pointed out in his press conference held to denounce the passing on of taxes to consumers that there is a “process” that must be followed to resolve the issue.

He pointed out that the position that the passing on of taxes is illegal is just the opinion of the Office of the General Counsel and has not been officially adopted by the MWSS board.

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NOY’S EAR: It may be hard to say if Esquivel is for or against water consumers, but it is easy to conclude that he is all-out for President Aquino, and will act to protect him.

He admitted in the same radio interview that he contributed P10 million to Mr. Aquino’s campaign kitty in 2010.

Looking at the positive side of that confession, we assume that he is one of the rare birds who have the ear of the President and therefore is in a good position to whisper to him what is good for the public – assuming he is on the side of consumers.

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EXPENSIVE STABLE: It would be something to eavesdrop when Esquivel tries explaining to the President his having hired 40 consultants paid from a low of P50,000 to a high of P400,000 monthly.

Esquivel must do it properly if he does not want to land in the Blame Column in the President’s SONA like some officials who have just been sacked or publicly rebuked for some failures.

(After three years at it, presidential speechwriters must have grown weary invariably blaming former President Gloria Arroyo, and so must look for other scapegoats).

How will Esquivel’s stable of fabulously-paid consultants look against the administration’s anti-corruption campaign? Remember, the President installed this Ateneo 1981 batchmate of his MWSS head after denouncing unconscionable consultants’ fees in the agency!

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GRAFT SUITS: Workers at the water agency claimed that 436 consultants had been hired along with 162 forest workers at Ipo Dam, none of whom submitting a resume. But Esquivel argued that the consultants were more industrious, diligent and efficient.

Esquivel reportedly went on a hiring binge from February 2011 to May 2012, when Aquino had imposed a moratorium on the hiring of personnel in MWSS and other government-owned and -controlled corporations.

The Samahan ng Mamamayan Laban sa Katiwalian (SMLK) and the Confederation for Unity, Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees (Courage) have asked Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales to speed up the evaluation of 11 graft suits against Esquivel.

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PAPER PROFITS: Defending his hiring spree, Esquivel argued that the money spent pales in comparison to earnings, in effect saying that if the office makes money, then a presidential moratorium on hiring can be ignored.

He bragged that the agency was in the red by P34 million when he came in, but made P334 million in 2011, and P1.98 billion the following year.

The MWSS chief said he himself receives only P70,000 monthly.

An internal report said, however, that the profits came from the appreciation of the peso against the US dollar, with foreign exchange gains surging to P1.388 billion in 2012 from P147.044 million the year before.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 18, 2013)

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