THEY had ‘penny-pinched’ since the moment their children flew the nest to be able to retire to their amazing hilltop location in southern Spain.
The quantity surveyor and primary school teacher sacrificed for over a decade to stump up €300,000 for the stunning three-bed villa near Malaga and the Costa del Sol.
“We immediately fell in love with La Viñuela and the lake, where the light changes constantly,” Howard Kilduff, 69, told the Olive Press.
“We have a 270 degree horizon of the landscape, with such silence and solitude – it stirs the soul.”
But what Howard and his wife Jane, also 69, had not counted on was receiving a phone call from their bank in September telling them a water bill of €6,000 was going out of their account.
Now, all their plans to further renovate the finca they bought in 2018 and refurbish the kitchen have been put on hold.
They are even facing the crippling possibility of their bank accounts and then homes being embargoed if they don’t pay up.
They are not alone. A truculent town hall has slammed around two dozen other residents – mostly Brits – with unfathomable water bills in the tens of thousands of euros, without warning and a year late.
The village’s mayor has, not unexpectedly for Spain, put on his tin hat and dug a deeper trench.
Insisting there is nothing wrong with the council’s billing system, he has even, shockingly claimed the residents, mostly northern European expats, can ‘afford to pay’.
The dispute has seen clouds of paranoia and distrust gather over the lush green hills of La Viñuela and its once-great reservoir, now little more than an alarming puddle.
Protests have been called, but incredibly, the case has not yet come to the boil. It soon will, as we discovered on a trip to the area this month.
The first many residents knew about the saga was when the bills, often five-figure direct debits, came out of their account.
Thus the stage was set for a showdown between mayor, Jose Jiminez – affectionately known as ‘Juani’ – and its expat residents who occupy dozens of wonderful rural properties located around the lake.
“It saddens me that this has the potential to sour relationships in the village,” Howard added.
Another expat, Lee Talbot, 63, from Canterbury, was stunned with a demand of €43,000 from the third trimester of 2022 – now standing at €53,000 after further bills were added.
Absolutely adamant he didn’t use this water, he is refusing to pay and has turned off the mains water to his six-bed property and now ships in his own supply privately.
“Hardly cheap, but better than continually receiving water bills in the thousands from the town hall,” he told the Olive Press.
As if to prove exactly how ridiculous the situation has become, he even received a bill of €3,600 last month – despite the valves being nailed completely shut.
“In total it works out at €1,500 a month in water usage – that’s like having another mortgage!”
Talbot is one of the few residents to make a formal legal complaint to the town hall, who duly took his water meter away for testing, only to return a few days later conceding there was a small error in the reading – and knocking €600 off the total.
“Now pay up the rest,’ is basically what they told me,” continues the property developer, who has an office in Marbella.
“It was like checkmate. But they never released the actual report into this investigation they claimed to have done,” he continued. “We still don’t know how they made their calculations. It’s shocking.”
This experience has deterred other victims from having their meters ‘tested’, fearing that it is just a means for the town hall to rubber stamp their bills.
The reluctance of the town hall and the mayor to address the issue or even reassure its residents has slowly introduced ‘a poison’ into the community.
This wouldn’t be happening ‘if it were the Spanish getting the bills’, is the grumble being whispered louder and louder.
La Viñuela town hall has still not published its accounts for 2022 – as it is legally obliged to do – and it sat on the huge water bills for months before sending them out.
This was apparently due to a ‘technical glitch’ in their computer systems, an excuse that has been greeted with scepticism.
It also paves the way for a fresh round of exorbitant water bills to hit residents, like a green and verdant game of Russian roulette.
And it has prompted some to wonder out loud if the town hall is deliberately passing on huge costs to ‘los guiris’ in order to shield the rest of the village.
Jimenez infamously said in a newspaper interview that ‘if the residents used the water, they must pay – and they can pay.’
Yet the actual Spanish locals we spoke to this month were keen to impress that they got along very well with their foreign neighbours and that the community was actually well-integrated.
But one woman’s face hardened when asked if she sympathised with those hit with the bills.
“If they used that much water, they have to pay for it,” she said.
Yet the conspiracy theories have been tampered by the knowledge that a handful of Spanish residents also count among the victims.
Local goat farmer Jose Antonio received an assurance from the mayor that he would resolve the issue.
“Then they hit me with a bill for €17,000 without warning. I only found out I’d been charged when I saw it in the bank. It is basic robbery.”
He continued: “In other villages, if a huge bill arrives they would ring the person and explain what is going on. They needed to warn us before sending out the bills.”
Theories to get to the bottom of the matter abound, with the most prevalent being that air is entering the pipes and causing the meters to spin wildly and inflate the count.
Retired mechanical engineer and unofficial ‘Viñuela water bills’ spokesperson Paul Rouse is adamant that this occurs when the water pumps are switched off and on again.
But this was dismissed as a ‘bad theory’ at the town hall amid a finger-jabbing conversation when we were finally able to confront someone at the town hall. The mayor was ‘on holiday’ for most of the week.
“If that was the case, then all the properties in the same road would have the high bills,” the official – who demanded he was not named – pointed out.
“But it’s not the case. You have houses next to each other with very different bills.”
The town hall continues to insist that each case is different and it is just a coincidence with no common cause – despite the high bills all coming in the same quarter and being followed by two quarters of low bills.
“Such huge bills are almost impossible to justify,” the former expat mayor of neighbouring Alcaucin, Mario Blancke, told the Olive Press. “Something has clearly gone wrong there.”
The real estate boss, from Belgium, holds the distinction of being the only expat to become mayor in the region.
“La Viñuela used to get most of its water from a borehole in Alcaucin free of charge in exchange for paying the electricity bill on the pump and maintaining it,” he explained.
However, Blancke added that the electricity costs each month came to €10,000 a month.
In an ironic twist, it was a bill that Jiminez and the town hall ultimately found exorbitant themselves.
In a series of back door deals that were never written down, according to the Belgian ex-mayor, the two town halls negotiated a new deal to just charge for the water going through the pipes from Alcaucin to La Viñuela.
He also added that recent water bills include a 50% surcharge tax by the Junta which are going towards new sewage stations in the region.
But it still does not explain the mystery of the shocking water bills.
“In Alcaucin we offered residents the option to have a second meter installed to give two readings, at a cost of €120.”
Perhaps this is a simple measure that could help head off future problems in La Viñuela, but what is needed is a solution now.