Hydro One's overbilling powers on despite ombud probe

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Simone Laferriere couldn’t believe her eyes when she opened her Hydro One bill for December.

“Here’s what you owe — $1,015.17,” proclaimed the statement.

Not just that, she had signed up for pre-authorized payment, so the giant utility automatically scooped the money right out of her bank account.

She’s part of a growing number of Hydro One customers who’ve had huge, random bills.

Worse, customers aren’t getting a refund for errors — they get a credit on future bills.

In 2012, Laferriere and her husband, Andre, were paying $392 each month.

In January 2013, it went to $387. Then last April, their bill soared to $513. In June and July they got no bill at all. Then their monthly bill went to $534 until October — when it peaked again at $670.

In November it went to $349 — but then soared again to $621 in December.

But their January statement was the grandaddy of all bills — $1,015.

In February it was $805.

“Let’s see what March will bring in,” said Laferriere in a telephone interview from her home in Matheson, near Timmins.

“You’ve got to make sure the money is in your account, otherwise you’re paying the penalty and they’re charging you for an NSF cheque,” she said.

Last month, provincial ombudsman Andre Marin launched a probe into Hydro One’s smart meter program after receiving hundreds of complaints. Since then, complaints have skyrocketed. By end of the working day Tuesday, they’d had 5,605 complaints — that’s 4,958 since he launched the probe.

“The volume has been staggering,” he told me in a recent telephone interview. His office is averaging 220 complaints a day.

“One of the most shocking stories was about someone whose house was completely burned down, nothing left — and they were still getting hydro bills,” he said.

It turned out not to be an isolated case. Several people whose homes had been destroyed complained Hydro One was still gouging their pockets for electricity.

“A lot of people have been begging for bills for months. They don’t want to be hit in the side of the head and not be able to eat one day — and they’re begging for their bill,” he said.

Hydro One has told customers to pay what they think they owe until they can sort out the problem.

“I can’t imagine another business or a credit card company where you have to beg for them to bill you,” Marin said.

“People are having nightmares over their bills and Hydro One isn’t giving them their bills.”

Hydro One fired two customer service managers in response to his scathing criticism, but Marin said it goes deeper than that.

“We’re not satisfied that this can be corrected through two people departing. There is a cultural, systemic issue that we’re going to be looking at,” he told me.

Meanwhile, New Democratic Leader Andrea Horwath said Hydro One should stop taking money automatically from customers’ bank accounts.

“This mess has been ongoing for years now,” Horwath told reporters Tuesday.

“Finally, Hydro One, because of the ombudsman’s activity, is starting to get involved with this. It’s not good enough that people are still getting these bills that are so wrong, still getting money taken out of their accounts and not getting refunds.

“They’re taking money that doesn’t belong to them — Hydro One is. People should be getting refunds for that money. The money should be put back in their accounts and not simply credited.”

I think it’s time Hydro One, Metrolinx, OPG and every other government agency checked the dictionary.

They’re civil servants.

It’s time for them to be civil — and to serve the taxpayers and ratepayers who pay their salaries.