Days after being approved for new energy-efficient appliances, electricity is cut off for grandmother who struggles to pay bills.
Peggy Mills doesn’t own a clothes dryer and has given up cable TV and telephone service in her ongoing struggle to repay a $2,500 hydro debt and keep a lid on her ever-rising monthly electricity bills.
She has disconnected her electric stove and is scouring rummage sales for a gas appliance.
And in June, the 74-year-old pensioner applied to Hydro One’s Home Assistance Program to replace her aging refrigerator and freezer with more energy-efficient models to cut costs further.
But days after Mills received word her free new appliances were ready for delivery, Hydro One cut off power to her tiny bungalow in McArthurs Mills, about 25 km east of Bancroft.
“Maybe they won’t let me keep them now. Wouldn’t that be a bummer,” said Mills, whose electricity was disconnected July 18 after she gave up paying her bill in frustration over barely making a dent in the debt.
“One arm of the company gives and the other takes away.”
Not only has Mills lost power, but without electricity to run the pump on her well, she has no water either. So she drives to Bancroft several times a week to fill up five-gallon jugs from public taps. A neighbour has been letting her take baths.
“By the end of the day I’m pretty exhausted,” said Mills, who is waiting for a knee replacement operation and has other health problems.
An artist who lives on less than $17,000 a year in old age pension and HST credits, Mills is among hundreds of low-income residents in North Hastings County who are in arrears and at risk of disconnection, said Jane Kali, a community worker at North Hastings Community Trust.
“We get five to 10 calls a day from people in financial crisis because of their hydro bills,” said Kali. “Hydro can’t disconnect them in the winter, so they do it in the summer. For most people, it’s a question of paying for hydro or paying for food.”
Kali, who worked for more than a decade serving the homeless in downtown Toronto before moving to the area at the edge of Algonquin Park about five years ago, says rural poverty doesn’t seem to be on anybody’s radar.
“The isolation is huge. People are living in shacks. Hydro is the thing that is pushing people over the edge,” she said. “And there are not a lot of places people can turn to for help.”
Local Councillor Bill Kilpatrick, who sits on the board of the community trust, says average household incomes of $42,000 make it tough to pay hydro bills that can hit $1,000 a month.
“People here are making very hard choices between eating and paying the hydro,” he said. “Poverty is relatively hidden here. It’s down some back road where you don’t see it, whereas it’s far more visible in the big cities.”
When the Star reached out to Hydro One about Mills’s predicament Tuesday, a spokeswoman said disconnection is “always a last resort,” but that the utility is willing to take a second look.
“We’re very concerned about this customer,” said Nancy Clark.
“It appears that her situation is especially difficult,” she said. “So we are going to take this opportunity to look at this account again, reach out to social services in the area … and see if there is an arrangement that we can find.”
A spokeswoman for Ontario’s energy ministry said the province offers energy tax credits, payment programs and monthly subsidies to help low-income residents pay arrears and make bills more affordable.
“Ontario’s government is focused on ensuring that vulnerable customers have the resources to help avoid disconnection,” said Katrina Xavier.
Kali has already helped Mills get a grant of $500 from the provincial Low-Income Energy Assistance Program to help pay her arrears. In the spring, Mills started receiving a $30 monthly energy credit on her bill through the Ontario Electricity Support Program, introduced in January.
But the mother of five and grandmother of eight who visits the local food bank twice a month and has furnished her home with castoffs from the local dump, has been unable to get ahead of her hydro debt.
“My consumption charges are only about $49 a month. But delivery charges are almost twice that amount. And they keep rising,” Mills said.
Combined with her monthly debt repayment charge of $90 — which she says never seems to make a dent in the total amount she owes — Mills was forking out as much as $200 a month to keep her lights on and water running.
About three months ago, when Hydro One hiked her monthly debt repayment charge to $450 and threatened her with disconnection, Mills says she gave up paying altogether.
“It was going to cost me more than my mortgage,” she said.
Kali says Mills’s reaction is common.
“Hydro puts people on payment plans they can’t afford,” she said. “It’s a real problem.”
Kali, is teaming up with the Toronto-based group Put Food in the Budget, to put rural poverty on the provincial agenda. The group will be touring North Hastings County in September as part of what Kali hopes will result in dozens of rural communities taking up the charge.
“I’d love to see busloads of us converge on Queen’s Park to tell Premier Wynne what it’s like in rural Ontario,” she said. “To put food in the budget in rural Ontario, you have to put hydro in the budget.”
Help with hydro bills:
Ontario Electricity Support Program:
Residents with after-tax household incomes of $52,000 or less are eligible for the Ontario Electricity Support Program to help make monthly hydro bills more affordable. The program, offered through the Ontario Energy Board since January, offers subsidies of up to $75 monthly. About 500,000 households are expected to qualify. About 194,800 households had applied as of July 14. To date, 113,325 households have been accepted.
Low-Income Energy Assistance Program:
Emergency, one-time assistance of up to $500 is available for low-income customers who have fallen into arrears and are at risk of having their power disconnected. Those with electric heat can get up to $600.
Hydro utilities are not permitted to demand deposits or connection fees under ConsumersOntario Energy Board consumer protection rules. All customers have the option of setting up payment plans to help them pay their bills. Utilities must give advanced notice of at least 10 days and provide information on options before any disconnection. The board also helps negotiate affordable payment plans for those in arrears.
The Ontario energy and property tax credit provides up to $224 a year to help with sales tax on energy costs. An additional northern Ontario energy credit of up to $124 for singles and $224 for families is available for households in the northern part of the province.
Free energy-efficient upgrades to help lower costs are available for low-income households including light bulbs, weather stripping and new appliances under Hydro One’s Home Assistance Program.