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Got the monthly bill-paying blues

Deregulation was supposed to improve things, but that was a crock

Toronto Sun - October 20, 2002
By Connie Woodcock

We got a real shocker in the mail chez Woodcock a couple of weeks ago - an envelope containing a cheque from Bell Canada. No kidding.

It seems we had gotten so tangled up in our household bills, we had paid Bell twice in August. So there it was - $69 coming back to us. Thank goodness somebody at Bell spotted the error, because with the piles of envelopes stuffing our mailbox lately, I never would have noticed.

The amount of paper it takes to provide my household with its monthly accounts has mushroomed over the last few years. So has the number of bills since deregulation made the gas and electricity business so confusing.

Bell, Bell Mobility (for one cellphone) local electricity and water utilities, Union Gas (for home heating), Union Energy (one hot water tank), Rogers (for another cellphone), Cogeco (cable TV and Internet), Royal Bank Visa, CIBC Visa, American Express and a whole fistful of account information envelopes from CIBC (which I don't even bother to open any more unless I start getting nasty phone calls from the bank). Did I miss anyone?

Most bills come with three to five pages of information, so by the time I pile them all up on the kitchen counter and get the chequebook, I have a disheartening stack four or five inches high. Each one contains reams of information displayed in the most confusing way possible, as if it had been designed deliberately to keep you from realizing you're being overcharged or that rates have skyrocketed. Deregulation was supposed to improve things, but that was a crock - the bills just got longer and bigger.

Debt retirement charge

My last electricity bill says I used $129 worth of power in a month and a half. So why was the bill $219? The only part I really understood was the debt retirement charge of $12.12, all users' penance for allowing Ontario Hydro to run amok all those years.

A Sun colleague has tried to sidestep rising costs by shutting down everything except her refrigerator, sump pump and motion detector light when she leaves for work. She uses so little electricity, her bill should be minuscule and it is - one recent bill was for $21 worth of power. But the total amount owing was $56.30. "Don't use my name," she begs, "as I have no doubt one of those overpaid pukes will start charging me for lack of usage."

Deregulation and the resultant fluctuating electricity price has made things much, much worse. Sun reader Steve Hine reported in a letter to the editor last week that his electricity bill was estimated low for two months. During those two months, the price was 3.029c per kWh and 4.415c per kWh. In July, the meter reader arrived and the next bill caught up with the extra electricity used that was not included in the estimate. But although it was used in May and June, it was charged at the July rate, 6.328c per kWh. "Over the three-month period, I was overcharged by at least $100, probably more, but how can you prove that?" Hine wrote.

In September, Hine received an estimated meter reading for August from Hydro One that was "at least 50% too high. I only know this because when I saw the amount, I went out and read my meter. It had not reached the numbers they gave, three weeks after the estimate date.

"We are paying for the amount of electricity someone thinks we may have used, at the price they think we may have used it. This is because they don't know how much we used or when," Hine says. He thinks Ontario's legislation should be changed so that all meters must be read once a month.

Another Sun reader noticed something strange on his bill - 100 extra kWhs over and above his actual usage for that month. "I was told that every household is charged an additional amount each month, depending on individual consumption, for something called line loss," says Robert Marshall, of Simcoe. "This apparently is the amount of power lost along the line from the point of generation to my home.

"On top of a hydro bill that is now three times higher than what it was before privatization, I have to pay for their inefficiencies too? What a ripoff."

Just because we didn't have enough aggravation in our lives, the Woodcock family moved to a new house a couple of months ago. We thought we'd save some money. Ha.

I can summarize the experience in a single word: Don't. Where we once had one set of confusing bills per month, we now have two or three from some companies - the final bill from the old place, the first bill at the new place and the rebate/credit notice for the accounts we either paid twice (Bell) or were overbilled for (Union Gas).

Then there were all the moving charges - $50 so Bell could shut off our old service and start up our new one without leaving the office. The cable company charged $50 for the 20 minutes it took the cable Internet installer to plug a second line into one connection, drill two small holes in the wall and run a length of cable a total of about six feet. Then it charged another $50 for another cable guy to arrive, look around and go away again after announcing our television service was working. Our first cable bill in our new house, including the last month at the old house and all the installation charges, topped $200.

Still, I was amused by my daughter's first university phone bill from Sprint. It arrived in an oversize envelope and consisted of four 8-1/2 by 11 pages informing us she owes $3.94. It must have cost them most of that amount just printing and mailing it.

The grand champion of moving charges has yet to arrive - the local utility bill, which will have a $400 "security deposit" tacked on. The fact that the money, plus interest, will be refunded after two years (which is the time it takes them to decide they can trust you) doesn't make me feel a lot better. I wonder how anyone without a line of credit can possibly afford to move at these prices.

I'm not the only consumer confused by my own household bills. A friend admits she pays her bills blindly, never sure whether they're accurate or even whether she actually owes them. She tried to renew a magazine subscription this fall, only to find she had paid it twice the year before - at the most expensive rate.

Adding insult to injury, her credit card bill arrives without an envelope in which to return her payment. She had to phone to have them send her some envelopes - and she got a lecture about how most customers pay by phone or Internet.

Keeping tabs

I'm old-fashioned. I want one bill per service and I want all the charges summarized on one page. I want an envelope for my payment and I don't want three or four flyers outlining more ways of emptying my wallet. Most of all, I want energy to be regulated again, so I can be sure someone is keeping tabs on the excesses of the companies who supply me.

The topper for me arrived last week in the form of a $106 bill for the rental hot water heater. We've only lived here two months. How is this possible? But I'm afraid to phone the company.

Last time I complained, they said they'd check, put me on hold ... and never, ever came back.

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