Customer shocked at electricity billing

City of Penticton council investigating changes in billing to assist those on lower income.

Drew Curry looks over some paper work at the small cabin he rents in Penticton. The only thing that keeps the one room he lives in warm is the small electric heater he uses sparingly.

Drew Curry looks over some paper work at the small cabin he rents in Penticton. The only thing that keeps the one room he lives in warm is the small electric heater he uses sparingly.

There is a misconception that residential electrical service can’t or won’t be cut off during the cold months.

Drew Curry, 57, found out that isn’t the case in December when a City of Penticton employee turned up on the doorstep of his small rented cabin on Hudson Street.

The technician told Curry, who lives on a $900 monthly government disability pension, he was there to follow through with a disconnection notice for failure to pay an outstanding balance.

“Sometimes I’m overdue because I don’t get my cheque in time and I pay the late charge but now to have a guy at my door to unhook my power and had I not been here he would have unhooked my power. It’s not fair,” said Curry, who is living in one room of the building with only a small electric heater to keep warm.

At the time, Curry was given the option of making arrangements to pay the bill, which he did immediately over the phone and his power was not cut off and the worker left.

Because he was between assistance cheques he pawned a personal item and went to the collection department at City Hall to pay the $109.23, which he thought would bring his account up to date.

But he was surprised to learn he was being charged $68 for what later appeared on his December power bill as a “reconnection fee” even though the power was never actually turned off.

In addition to the bill he received in the first week of January was another disconnection notice for not having paid the reconnection fee, which was considered to be in arrears.

“I have $68 to my name right now and January is the longest month of the year for people on disability because they pay you before Christmas so you get a Christmas and (the government) don’t pay you again until the end of January,” said Curry, whose expenses, not including gas for his vehicle or utilities, are about $600 a month. “If I’d paid that money I wouldn’t have any for groceries for the rest of the month.

“That means I would have to go to the food bank and I would have to scavenge, getting things from stores that would otherwise be thrown away.”

He has since made arrangements with the city to pay the money in two installments.

“I’m not the only one in this situation, there are many other people in the same boat or worse, so what happens to them?” he asked.

Curry decided to pursue the matter further and it was eventually brought to the attention of Mayor Andrew Jakubeit.

“In light of this we are looking at how we do what we do and how we can be a little more customer friendly and hopefully came back with some options that make sense and are a bit more palatable for those who really need it,” said Jakubeit, who recently raised the matter with staff and council at a budget meeting. “So if we can find a way to make it more affordable for those who really need the help maybe we should be looking at doing that.”

Among the options the mayor would like to see considered are reducing charges associated with reconnection to either a lower flat fee or based on a sliding scale tied to the amount of the bill.

“It’s falling on those who don’t have a lot of disposable income and then all of a sudden they get hit with literally another month’s billing, an admin charge and connection charge that is excessive and you do that multiple times in a year it really adds up,” said Jakubeit. “Council’s first step is to look at that policy of the fee and to me that sliding scale is better. If you owe $80, a $68 reconnection fee is very excessive. If you owe $500 in the grand scheme of things is not as big.

“We want to be sensitive to those residential customers who have the lower bills and for whatever reason couldn’t make the payment.”

He estimated at this time of year there are usually between 100 and 200 customers who chronically have issue with paying their electrical bills.

By making the changes, the mayor would like to eventually see that figure cut at least in half.

Changing billing dates to coincide closer with the time when people receive their payments is another option he  would like to see considered. Customers do have the option of making arrangements with the city to pay and Jakubeit added that is something which can be raised with staff in a more private setting if a customer wishes.

“One of my mandates was to make Penticton a more affordable community and that doesn’t just mean more affordable housing, it’s much more than that,” he said.

The mayor expects to see some recommendations from staff in the near future.