MELBOURNE'S water retailers have defended their decision to increase household water bills by as much as $310 next year to pay for the troubled desalination plant despite admitting they will have to offer additional assistance programs to help customers pay them.
At a public forum to discuss the retailers' proposed water prices - which will increase by an average 34 per cent next year - Yarra Valley Water managing director Tony Kelly said he expected more customers to access hardship programs because of the price rises.
He also said it will introduce a "smoothing" program that will give customers the option of paying their bills weekly, fortnightly, or monthly, instead of quarterly, to help budget for the price increases.
The costs of operating the desal plant account for two-thirds of the price rises, which, if approved by the Essential Services Commission in June, will see the average annual household water bill increase from $840 to $1130, from July.
The three major water retailers - City West Water, Yarra Valley Water and South East Water - have proposed to pass on the bulk of the operating costs of the desal plant in the first year of the five-year plan, with prices rising with inflation for the following four years.
Mr Kelly said the number of customers making use of its hardship programs had almost doubled in the past five years and he expected that to rise further "because of the significant price rise".
"We're introducing new payment arrangement schemes to enable customers to smooth their annual charges . . . and so we'll be promoting that heavily before the prices are set in the middle of next year."
Opposition water spokesman, John Lenders, accused the government and water bodies of putting their own financial concerns ahead of consumers.
Water Minister Peter Walsh hit back, blaming Labor for building the plant in the first place.