Kincardine aims to tackle hydro disconnection issue

Freezing temperatures, soaring energy costs creating financial strain

By Barb McKay


Rising energy costs and long stretches of frigid temperatures this winter have been a recipe for disaster for many on fixed incomes in Bruce County.


For hydro and propane use in particular, the situation has put extreme stress on those struggling to make ends meet. Westario Power customers who fall behind on their bills face disconnection, and with temperatures dipping below minus 20 degrees Celsius some nights, it is a frightening prospect.


Concern over high energy costs is prompting Kincardine council to consider action. During last Wednesday’s council meeting, councillor Ron Coristine introduced a motion calling on Westario to amend its procedures for disconnection, and remove the threat during winter months.


Councillor Ken Craig said he supported the idea, but was concerned that when spring arrives all the people who are not up-to-date on their hydro bills will then be disconnected.


Councillor Maureen Couture and deputy mayor Anne Eadie suggested that Kincardine’s representative on the Westario board, Randy Hughes, should be invited to speak to council on the issue. The municipality will send letters to Westario and Hydro One expressing its concern. Council deferred the motion to its March 5 council meeting.


In a telephone interview with The Independent, Westario president Lisa Milne said disconnection is a last resort. She said the company has several options to help customers pay their bills and also lower their energy consumption. Simply contacting Westario can prevent disconnection.


“It’s very rare that we have to disconnect,” she said. “We recognize that economic times and rising hydro bills are challenging for the public at large and we recognize the concerns of our customers. We are very sensitive to our customers needs.”


Milne said Westario has an arrears management program that is customer specific. She said she encourages anyone who is struggling with their hydro bill to apply and see if they are eligible. The United Way of Bruce and Grey also provides financial assistance for energy bills and Westario recently made a $15,000 donation to the program.


Milne said Westario also has a tool, My Hydro Eye, which helps customers manage their electricity consumption. Information is posted on customers’ hydro bills that allows them to log in to a website and view their usage data.


Since the beginning of the year, Milne said, a total of seven customers have been disconnected. Five of those had their power restored within four or five hours, after making payment arrangements. The other two properties were vacant and the landlords opted to leave the power turned off.


Westario’s billing procedure is as follows: payment is required 16 days after the billing date. If a bill remains unpaid five days following that date, a reminder notice is issued. Seven days following that, if the bill is still unpaid a final notice is hand delivered. From there the customer has 10 days to contact Westario or their hydro is disconnected.


“We always knock on the door and try to speak to someone at the door,” Milne said of the hand delivery procedure.


She added that the notice includes a list of options for customers to make payment. Westario again tries to make contact with the customer before turning off the power.


“If the customer hasn’t reached out to us, we reach out to them,” Milne said.


But, customers need to take the responsibility to call in to the office and deal with the situation, she stressed.


“The more time we have to work together the better. We are here to help them the best we can.”


During last Wednesday’s council meeting, mayor Larry Kraemer said council needs to be aware that the issue includes a number of energy sources, including oil and propane. He said the rising cost of energy has become a priority for social service agencies.


Susan Earle, administrator for Bruce County Housing, reported to county council last Thursday indicating for many the department works with the ability to pay utility bills is a significant concern.


According to data collected by the social services department, 86 per cent of the phone calls made to the United Way of Grey and Bruce’s 211 line in Bruce County in 2012 were for assistance in paying energy bills that had fallen into arrears. With the rising cost of energy, that figure is only growing. Earle said that propane prices have doubled and cold temperatures, often below minus 20 degrees Celscius at night, led to huge bills.


The social services departments for Bruce and Grey held a utilities workshop last May to understand the concerns.


“In Bruce and Grey Counties, the face of poverty is changing,” Earle stated in her report. “Service providers are starting to see seniors who are facing challenges and this was not the case in the past. While many seniors no longer have a mortgage on their home, many have modest, fixed incomes that are no longer sufficient to cover the rising costs of maintaining their homes, including utilities.


“Some seniors are particularly affected and anecdotal accounts have reported seniors going to bed in snow suits, using barbeques in their kitchens or reducing food purchases as a way to cope with utility costs.

Many people refuse to ask for help with their utilities until the situation is quite dire, which in turn requires more community resources to resolve.”


Earle said the rules around disconnection are unclear and utility companies need to do more to make bills and notices more understandable.


At the Kincardine food bank last Thursday, volunteers said they are seeing an increase in the number of people requiring assistance. The number one complaint is high electricity bills. In January, a total of 37 adults and 70 children accessed the food bank. In the first three weeks of February, 34 adults and 85 children visited the food bank.