Kincardine looking at ways to deal with hydro disconnections

Westario rep says no interest in taking on financial risk to suspend winter disconnects

By Barb McKay


Some residents are doing without electricity in the summer in order to afford power in the winter, according to a Kincardine councillor.


Jacqueline Faubert said as the issue of rising electricity costs has become more prominent, she has been approached by a number of people who say they are doing whatever they can to make it more affordable, even if that means living without it for part of the year.


Rising electricity prices was a hot topic during last Wednesday’s council meeting, when the municipality’s representative on Westario Power’s board of directors, Randy Hughes, came to explain the company’s disconnection policy.


“Despite reports otherwise, (disconnection) is a very rare event, but it does occur,” Hughes said.


In a letter to the municipality, Westario president Lisa Milne said in January 38 Kincardine residents received notices of final collection. One resident was disconnected. Power was restored to that property approximately five and a half hours later, after payment was made. The few Westario customers who were disconnected last month had been in arrears since October, she noted.


Milne outlined Westario’s billing process, indicating that bills are typically issued on the 12th day of the month. The bill is due 16 days from that date. If payment is not received by then, a reminder notice is sent out five days after the due date. If payment is still not received a final collection notice will be hand delivered seven days later. Customers then have 10 days to contact Westario Power to arrange payment. If payment is not made, customers are contacted 48 hours ahead of disconnection to discuss a mutually-acceptable payment and payment options.


Customers who show they are making an effort to pay their bill are given an additional 21 days. Individuals on life-support equipment powered by electricity get an extra 60 days to come up with payment.


“I want to assure council, the media and the public that Westario does not want to disconnect customers at any time,” Hughes said, adding that it doesn’t make financial sense to take customers off service when the company is in the business of providing power.


Hughes said that according to the provincial government, electricity is not considered an essential service. Some municipalities have invoked vital service bylaws to make electricity an essential service during the winter months to prevent disconnection, but those municipalities then become responsible for paying the bills for customers that fall into arrears. Hughes said Kincardine could use the dividend it receives from Westario each year to cover the cost. He noted that electricity prices are set by the Ontario Energy Board, not Westario, and rates are likely to continue to go up, not down.


Faubert said the additional charges that come with final notices and disconnections create additional challenges for people already struggling to pay their utility bills. Westario’s charge to reconnect hydro service following a disconnection is $65. She said this is an issue that has been going on for years, not just this winter.


“Charging $65 for a reconnection for someone who has worked hard to bring Westario some money is redundant and, really, mean,” she said. “They squeeze out partial payment from any friend or family that can spare $10 and then they are slapped with that charge.”


Hughes said when services are disconnected it means crews must be sent from Walkerton and there are costs associated with labour and gas for the trucks.


“I don’t think $65 is unreasonable,” he said.


As well, Faubert said, customers are hit with a $17 fee that is tacked on their bills when they receive a final notice.


“I’m not aware of that; that’s not part of the policy,” Hughes replied.


However, a final notice obtained by The Independent clearly states, “a collection fee of $16.95 (incl. HST) applies anytime a final collection notice is issued and will be payable on your next monthly invoice.”


In addition, the notice stated that a $65 reconnection charge would apply during regular hours (when full payment is received by 3 p.m.) at the meter. Reconnection at the pole is $185. If reconnection occurs outside of regular hours, the charge at the meter is $185. Reconnection at the pole is $415.


Hughes said that he has taken the matter to members of the Westario board, polling them individually to see if there was any interest in suspending winter disconnections. No one was interested. For that reason, he said, he won’t put forward a motion to the board.


“Westario Power doesn’t feel it should be the one to take the financial risk and the customer would suffer because they would dig themselves into a bigger financial hole,” Hughes said.


Deputy mayor Anne Eadie asked if there was any funding, through Bruce County social services or the United Way of Grey and Bruce, to help people with utility bills. If there is funding to be accessed, she said, there should be no disconnections.


“Not all customers that have been disconnected are needy,” Hughes said. “With some, it’s a difference of opinion.”


Susan Earle, administrator for Bruce County Housing, was at the meeting and said the United Way does not have any more funding available for utility costs, but the county still has some available. However, recipients must be able to qualify for it.


Councillor Ron Coristine introduced a motion at the Feb. 19 meeting for the municipality to request that Westario suspend its winter disconnections. The motion was deferred to last Wednesday’s meeting. He told Hughes that Westario’s policies around payment and disconnection need to be clearer.


“It’s the older adults and women and children, who through no fault of their own, are caught in circumstances that make it challenging for them,” he said.


Hughes said Westario has just hired a new manager of customer support who will be working to improve customer support and educate customers about payment options.


Councillor Ken Craig said he would like to see Westario be more proactive in dealing with the situation and asked what council should do with Coristine’s motion.

Mayor Larry Kraemer said he was sympathetic with Westario and other companies that are faced with collecting payments that have fallen into arrears.


“I think Westario’s policies are about right and we need to lobby the province to put more money behind social services, which can differentiate between people who can’t pay their bills and those who don’t want to,” he said.


Earle said the county recently held a utilities workshop with Westario and Hydro One and it might be a good exercise to hold another one.


“There has been some progress already,” she said, noting that Bruce County Housing was able to identify customers who had difficulty paying their bills so they could avoid extra charges.


Council voted on Coristine’s motion but it was defeated. Kraemer suggested that, along with lobbying the province, the municipality could look at providing more funding for social services to be used specifically in Kincardine. Staff was directed to prepare a report, with input from Bruce County Housing and the United Way, and bring it back to council next month.