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Hydro One billing service 'outrageously' bad: Ombud

By Antonella Artuso, Queen's Park Bureau Chief

Ontario ombudsman Andre Marin delivers his report on Hydro One on Monday May 25, 2015. (DAVE ABEL/Toronto Sun)

Ontario ombudsman Andre Marin delivers his report on Hydro One on Monday May 25, 2015. (DAVE ABEL/Toronto Sun)

Toronto - 

A special Ontario ombudsman’s investigation into Hydro One uncovered stunning billing errors, “outrageously” bad customer service and an organization that misled even the electricity regulator on the extent of its problems.

Andre Marin’s probe of Hydro One, which culminated in the release Monday of his final report, In The Dark, was prompted by a deluge of public complaints that followed the implementation of a new billing and customer service system at the publicly-owned utility.

Marin estimates that more than 100,000 Hydro One customers were ultimately impacted through overcharging, missing or multiple bills and an ineffective complaint system.

Getting to the root of the problem with Hydro One was akin to trying to pin a kangaroo to a trampoline, Marin said.

“To fix the customer service problems cost $88.3 million — almost half the price of the initial system,” he said. “It was a fiasco, it was a mess ... that’s eight times my budget to oversee all of government.”

The ombudsman refused to accept that the “mind-boggling maladministration” could be put down to just software programming or defective data.

“Rather, its fatal flaw is a technocratic and inward-facing organizational culture that is completely out of step with public sector values,” his report concluded.

Marin claimed his office — as well as Hydro One’s board of directors, the Minister of Energy Bob Chiarelli and the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) — were misled by Hydro One officials about the extent of the problem.

He said it was unfortunate that the Ontario government, in its plan to sell off a majority stake of Hydro One to the private sector, also intends to remove his office’s oversight of the utility while leaving the OEB as the go-to independent organization for public complaints.

“We’re the ones that blew the whistle on this,” Marin said. “I’m the one who discovered that they were all misled.”

His office received 10,565 public complaints about Hydro One, more than in any other single investigation in its 40-year history.

“In one case, Hydro One took $10,000 from the bank account of a senior from Timmins, leaving him on the hook for overdraft charges — it took months before his bill was reduced to just $800,” Marin said. “In another, it charged an Ottawa man $11,000 after his metre was changed and five years of electricity he had already paid for was added to his bill.

“It took him more than a year, 40 calls to the call centre, five complaints to managers and finally our office to get the mess sorted out.”

Hydro One CEO Carmine Marcello said the organization made mistakes but has now begun or completed work on 64 of 65 recommendations made by Marin to prevent future problems.

“Last year, I wrote to my 1.3 million customers and I told them I was sorry ... including the 95% who had never experienced the problem,” Marcello said. “We let them down, we didn’t treat them well, and we’re sorry we put them through a difficult experience. It’s unfortunate that they had no recourse but to go to the ombudsman.”

Hydro One has been fixing the billing system and addressing technical issues, but failed to appreciate the impact on customers, he said.

Marcello said his organization did not provide misleading information to oversight organizations, but several key people were asked to leave Hydro One.

Marin said he does not believe that all problems have been fixed, and he continues to get complaints from customers.

Chiarelli said he has sent a letter to the chair of Hydro One asking for a thorough analysis of the ombudsman’s findings and any other issues around customer service.

“There is a significant disappointment — it was a serious issue,” Chiarelli said. “Hydro One has taken a lot of remedial action.”

HYDRO ONE’S SHOCKING BILLS:

  1. A ski club received a $37,000 bill in error, complained and was sent a $36.7-million bill.
  2. Sudbury man sent $19,152 bill in April 2014, after four-month delay to update system after meter replacement. After actual readings viewed, his bill was $74.
  3. King Township woman, 84, whose average monthly bill was $200, stopped getting bills, then three bills covering the same time period arrived in one month, demanding $9,000 each. Her actual bill? $640.
  4. An Inglewood man expected a final bill for a sold property to be under $100. He received a letter from a collections company on behalf of Hydro One saying he owed $18,000. He actually owed $56.35.
  5. A Matheson man, after getting no Hydro One bills in the summer of 2013, was hit by six estimated bills and then the utility withdrew $1,959 from his bank account unexpectedly. Actual bill was $144.

OMBUDSMAN TIPS TO HYDRO ONE TO STOP MESSING UP:

  1. Put the customer first in all project planning phases.
  2. Ensure number of customers impacted by systems issues tracked.
  3. Adopt proactive, transparent, open and accountable approach.
  4. Train staff before introducing initiatives that impact customers.
  5. Provide timely and accurate scripts for call centre staff.
  6. Tip for the Ontario government — Consider keeping oversight by Ontario ombudsman of Hydro One, even if restructured.

antonella.artuso@sunmedia.ca

(Ombudsman releases report on Hydro One coverage)


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