Ontario’s NDP opposition hammered Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government Wednesday over passing a bill that removes regulations controlling the prices paid by more than 325,000 hydro customers in the province.
The changes, which passed Tuesday as part of Bill 66, strip the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) of its authority to regulate energy rates charged by submetering companies.
According to the NDP, Ford’s decision to slash these protections opens the door to both “corporate greed” and “predatory billing.”
“The individual apartment metering business is the Wild West,” said NDP energy critic Peter Tabuns during question period at Queen’s Park on Wednesday.
“Bill 66 eliminated the protection that tenants need from predatory, private energy metering companies,” he said.
Submetering companies provide utility services to tenants and condo owners in multi-unit buildings. By installing submeters in each unit, these companies allow landlords and property owners to shift the cost of utilities from one bill for the entire building to separate bills.
Since January, Global News has reported extensively on the submetering industry in Ontario and the changes contained in Bill 66.
Global News also reported claims made by students who said submetering company Wyse Meter Solutions was “taking advantage” of them by charging “ridiculous” fees and by issuing individual bills to roommates with separate administration charges.
WATCH: NDP slams Ford government over ‘predatory’ submetering sector
In response to these claims, Wyse said it had lowered its administration fees and returned customers to “group” billing after learning the students were not on individual leases.
Then, on Tuesday, Global News also reported that Wyse charged residents of Foundry Simcoe, a privately-owned student housing complex in Oshawa, Ont., for gas and electricity without having installed either gas or electricity submeters.
In this particular case, emails obtained by Global News show Wyse was billing students based off information contained on the bills issued by other utilities.
“My constituents in Oshawa deserve protection from predatory energy metering companies like Wyse Meter Solutions,” said Jennifer French, the NDP MPP for Oshawa, during question period.
“The Global News story made it clear, students were charged at least double their actual consumption of electricity by a company that had not even installed meters,” she said.
“Why did this government knowingly open the door to corporate greed and cancel laws that are supposed to protect people from predatory billing?”
WATCH: Students outraged by hydro company’s billing “scam”
Wyse did not respond to Global News’ request for comment in time for publication.
The company has, however, said in the past that its individual billing practices comply with all federal and provincial rules. The company also says that residents of purpose-built student housing with individual leases should be allowed to receive individual utility bills.
With respect to Foundry Simcoe, Wyse told Global News it has lowered administration fees at the property and apologized to residents for any confusion, adding that it is working to improve its billing and customer service departments.
The company also said individual billing is intended to help students manage their finances and deal with the challenges of splitting communal utility bills, a service Wyse says typical hydro companies do not provide
Wyse’s co-CEO Ian Stewart also said the company is “committed to full compliance with all appropriate standards and regulations as determined by the OEB.”
Government says consumers are protected
In response to Tabuns’s question Wednesday, John Yakabuski, Ontario’s natural resources minister, said regulating the rates charged by submetering companies would increase costs for low-income customers.
“In the dying days of the previous government, the Wynne Liberals made a misguided commitment that would have raised electricity bills for low-income tenants,” Yakabuski said.
“Consumers are protected from price gouging through competition,” he added. “We know this because unit submetering companies often offer metering services at lower costs than your local utility.”
According to a report commissioned by the Sub-Metering Council of Ontario (SCO), customers of submeterers save an average of $117 a year in administration fees compared to customers of typical hydro customers, such as Toronto Hydro.
WATCH: Students claim Ontario utility company ‘taking advantage’ of low-income hydro subsidy
But as Global News has reported, low-income customers, particularly tenants, have little to no choice when it comes to the submetering company they deal with and the fees they are charged. That’s because property owners and building managers — not tenants — decide which submetering company services their buildings.
For tenants moving into a new apartment, there’s no choice which submetering company provides their power — it’s either take it or leave it.
Meanwhile, for existing tenants serviced by a submeterer, if they’re unhappy with the company and want to switch, the only options are for them to either move or convince their landlord to change companies.
“Students, families and the programs meant to help people need protection from predatory companies,” French said. “This government stripped them of that protection, specifically, on purpose, in Bill 66.”
Global News requested an interview with Ontario Energy Minister Greg Rickford, but this request was declined.
WATCH: ‘I’ve been ripped off’ Ontario utility company sent roommates identical bills based off one meter
In a written statement, Rickford echoed Yakabuski’s comments, saying submetering companies often save customers money.
“The Unit Sub-Metering industry is competitive, and if the previous government’s plan to introduce burdensome regulation proceeded, significant unneeded costs would have been passed on directly to the people who need hydro bill relief the most,” Rickford said.
He also said the OEB has measures in place that apply to submetering companies that protect low-income customers, adding that submeterers, such as Wyse, must be licensed by the OEB and must comply with certain consumer service rules.
But as Global News recently reported, many consumer protections authorized by the OEB do not apply to submetering companies. This includes a prohibition on charging customers a fee for delivering a disconnection notice and stricter rules around late payment fees.
WATCH: Submetering companies voluntarily ban hydro winter disconnections
And while companies represented by the SCO, including Wyse, recently announced a voluntary ban on disconnecting hydro during the winter, the OEB’s official moratorium on disconnections and the rule that requires customers be reconnected during the winter also does not apply to submeters.
Global News asked Rickford about the competitiveness of the submetering industry in Ontario — given that this was mentioned in the government’s comments and the fact that tenants do not get to choose their own submetering provider — but he declined to answer.