Ontario’s energy regulator has launched an investigation into the billing practices of Brantford Power after the utility threatened to disconnect a customer four days after he failed to make a monthly payment.
Jim Dinsmore, a pensioner from Brantford, Ont., doesn’t dispute he made a mistake. Rather than leave enough money in his bank account to cover his $162.98 monthly payment to Brantford Power, he chose instead to pay off a higher-than-normal Visa bill after taking his wife Bet to a show last October.
That meant his payment to Brantford Power bounced. Four days later, he received a letter from Brantford Power saying the company’s collections department had been “instructed to discontinue your service if payment is not received by due date.”
A powerful threat that Dinsmore says made him feel like Brantford Power – a municipally-owned utility company – “didn’t give a rip” about him or his wife.
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“They got no respect for their customer. Absolutely, they’re bullying in my mind,” said Dinsmore. “I mean, I admitted I screwed up, but jeez, here they are just bang, going to cut your power.”
The letter is now being investigated by the Ontario Energy Board. It made no mention of the fact that Dinsmore might be eligible for emergency funding to prevent disconnection, nor did it explain the possibility of entering into an arrears payment plan – both required by the OEB when a utility informs a customer they could be disconnected.
Dinsmore says after receiving the letter he called Brantford Power and offered to make a payment the same day. But rather than accept his offer, Dinsmore says a representative from the company told him not to worry and that the overdue amount would be automatically deducted from his bank account the following month.
Despite this assurance, Dinsmore received an official disconnection notice from Brantford Power three days later. The notice said power to his home would be cut off sometime between Nov. 6 – 16 if payment was not received.
“Sunday morning, they hand deliver a disconnection notice,” said Dinsmore. “So on Monday I phoned them and I said ‘What’s going on?’”
Dinsmore says the answer he received from Brantford Power was unclear and that while the issue was eventually resolved by cancelling the collections process and adding the overdue amount to his next monthly bill – he was left feeling embarrassed and ashamed.
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Dinsmore says he and his wife do everything they can to conserve and reduce their hydro bills – including supplementing their income by having a fellow pensioner live downstairs as a tenant. He says his utility bills aren’t nearly as high as some, but worries that what happened to him might also be happening to others.
Despite having filed an official complaint with the OEB and reaching out to Brantford Power on two separate occasions, Dinsmore says he’s received very few answers in terms of specific steps the company is taking to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
Disconnection notice the “first step” in the process
Brantford Power says its reviewed Dinsmore’s case and is making improvements to its operations. These include providing employees with “additional instructions” and taking steps to “modify” the way the company handles automatic pre-authorized payments. But the company refuses to provide specific details about the changes.
The OEB, which became involved in the process once Dinsmore filed an official complaint, says the company is manually reviewing all customer accounts until the unspecified changes are made.
When pressed on why the company was so quick to send out a formal disconnection notice – roughly 10 days after Dinsmore missed his payment – company spokesperson Adriann Kennedy said that despite disconnection being a “last resort,” sending a disconnection notice is the “first step” in the process.
“A disconnection notice is the first step. We view disconnection as the absolute last step of the process. So, the notice is the first step and it’s intended to start a dialogue with a customer,” Kennedy said.
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She added the company does not send out a disconnection notice one day and turn off the lights the next. There’s a process the company goes through to assist customers in need, which includes notifying them of emergency funding available through the Low-income Energy Assistance Program and the Ontario Electricity Support Program.
But Kennedy says sending a disconnection notice to customers so quickly is an effective and “institutionalized” tool allowed under the guidelines set out by the OEB.
“If a customer receives a disconnection notice, the first step is to call us so that we can have that conversation about what we can do to help them out,” Kennedy said. “We’ve seen the impacts of that because our disconnection rate is very low. Fewer than one percent of our customers were disconnected in 2016.”
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But Dinsmore has a different name for it. He says the company bullies its customers.
Asked about Dinsmore’s perception, Kennedy apologized and said she hates to hear any customer is dissatisfied with their service. She encourages customers experiencing difficulty to contact the company and says Brantford Power is in the business of providing electricity to customers – not cutting it off.
Know your rights: 10 things a utility company MUST do before cutting off your power
- Give at least 10 days’ notice before disconnecting a customer for non-payment.
- Give at least 60 days’ notice before disconnecting a customer with a doctor’s note that says disconnection could pose “significant adverse effects” to the physical health of anyone living in the home.
- Provide detailed information – on the Disconnection Notice itself – about emergency funding available through the Low-income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP).
- Suspend disconnection for 21 days for any customer who has applied to LEAP.
- Provide information on arrears payment plans and equal billing options.
- Provide information on low-income assistance programs like the Ontario Electricity Support Program.
- Make “reasonable efforts” to contact a customer in-person or by phone 48 hours before disconnection.
- Clearly identify on the Disconnection Notice any service charges or fees that could apply when a customer is reconnected.
- Provide customers with a copy of the Fire Safety Notice prepared by the Office of the Fire Marshal, as well as any other relevant safety notices.
- A utility company cannot disconnect a customer with a smart meter based solely on an estimated bill.
Has your utility company threatened to disconnect your power without following any of these rules? Please let us know.