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Councillor moves to keep the lights on

Motion comes after city family left in the cold

Lindsay This Week - January 27, 2004
by Deb Bartlett

West Ops (Ward 12) Councillor Sandra Jack wants the Province to ban utilities providers from disconnecting customers in the winter.

At Tuesday's council meeting, Ms Jack asked council to write a letter to Premier Dalton McGuinty and Energy Minister Dwight Duncan asking the province to prevent utilities from being cut off.

She also wants a copy of the motion sent to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and municipalities in the province for endorsement and support.

It is a misconception that utilities can't be disconnected in the winter.

Ted Gruetzner, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Energy, says a temporary moratorium was put in place until March 31, 2003 after a price spike. The former Tory government did not want people who were trying to catch up on their bills to be penalized with having utilities cut off, says Mr. Gruetzner.

That put pressure on the utilities, and sometimes resulted in abuse of the provision, he says.

"There is no law that prevents disconnections," says Mr. Gruetzner.

Ms Jack's motion comes as a result of Hydro One disconnecting electricity from the Nealon residence on Dec. 17. The family was without power for a month.

As a result of lack of heat, the family's furnace broke, and water froze and cracked the water pump. Kim Nealon says they are still without water and the furnace was only fixed Wednesday.

Daffyd Roderick, a spokesperson for Hydro One is unable to discuss details of any specific case, but says cutting a customer off utilities rarely happens.

"It's not frequent," he says. "It's less than one per cent of customers."

Ms Nealon says her latest bill is for $752.29, including a $260 reconnection fee.

Prior to being disconnected, Ms Nealon says they owed $849, but paid $350 the week before. She claims they made arrangements to pay $200 the week of Christmas, and $200 the week after.

Ms Nealon was surprised the utility was cut after that agreement.

In cases where a bill has gone unpaid, Mr. Roderick says an automatic dialer calls the customer's home and tells customers to call and make payment arrangements. If neither arrangements nor payments are made, Mr. Roderick says a letter goes to the customer telling them the account is overdue and to call to make arrangements "suitable for the both us."

Once that is done, a printed version of the discussed payment plan is sent to the customer.

"We don't like to disconnect people and we work really hard to work out a schedule," says Mr. Roderick.

If the payment plan is not discussed, a final call and letter is sent to the customer to warn them disconnection is going to take place. Mr. Roderick says a crew must go to the property to disconnect the utility.

His advice to customers unable to pay their bill is to "get in touch and at least discuss it with us."

Mr. Gruetzner at the Ministry of Energy echoes this. "We encourage people to reach out and talk (to the utility provider) prior to getting into difficulty," he says.

Neighbours, family, friends, churches and Sandra Jack have been very helpful, says Ms Nealon. While they were without electricity, neighbors took her children in for a few days at a time "to stay warm and have a hot meal", she says.

"I had to go up to my brother's because it was too damn cold here," she says.

She has five children. One is at university in Toronto; the others are 17, 12, nine and seven years of age.

"It's kind of unfair," Ms Nealon says. "We owed $400 at that point...We couldn't even put the Christmas lights on, there was no turkey dinner."

Ms Jack has arranged an account at A Place Called Home for the community to help pay down the Nealons' electricity bill.

Lorrie Polito, director of that organization, says any money donated to the Nealon family will be used to pay the power bill, additional costs related to the electricity being cut off and to pay the bill in advance.

There has been an "outpouring of kindness started by their community," says Ms Polito.

A Place Called Home is the flow-through organization for the utility bank in the area. Ms Polito says a small amount of money is provided by the City of Kawartha Lakes to be put towards the accounts of people who fall behind in their payments.

Because they are a non-profit organization, A Place Called Home can issue a tax receipt for any donations made to the Nealon family.

"While it's wonderful that friends and neighbors have come forward (to help the Nealons), there are a number of others in the same position," Ms Polito says.

She has been in contact with at least three other families in the City of Kawartha Lakes who have had power cut off.

"It is very important to stress we are not funding this," says Ms Polito of the utility bank.

They can help pay a bill if they verify the customer won't be cut off.

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