It was either agree to a payment plan they’re not sure how they’re going to afford, or have their power shut off immediately.
A Cawston couple was hit with an inflated bill last year after the labour dispute between FortisBC and its employees ended. After having the bills estimated for several months, the meters were finally read. Customers who used more than the previous year had everything owed put on one bill.
“We never paid anything close to that so I’m not sure how we should know that our bill was going to be that high,” said Antoni Udala.
After more than a year of dealing with FortisBC, trying to understand how they’re bill was more than four times its normal amount, Deloris Wawea and Udala were required to agree to pay the utility company more than 25 per cent of their monthly income until the debt is paid off, or have their power shutoff within 24 hours.
“We have been threatened and threatened by Fortis. They don’t want to work it out with us. It’s either pay them or they are going to turn it off,” he said.
The couple has lived in a home of Main Street in Cawston for more than 30 years.
They can remember, when in a previous, older home on the property, when their bills were only $80 every two months.
They knew their bills in late 2013 and early 2014 should have been a few hundred dollars higher because the home was under renovations to deal with a black mold issue. They were not prepared to receive a bill of almost $2,000 in January 2014, nor or a bill two months later of just over $1,000.
“I was expecting to pay so many hundreds more but not almost $3,000,” Udala said.
The couple is on a fixed income with Wawea, 70, collecting about $1,200 through her old age pension. Udala, 55, receives just $485 a month through CPP Disability. Udala has epilepsy and suffers from grand mall seizures.
To make additional money both also work for farmers in the orchards near their home but with Wawea’s age and ongoing medical conditions of osteoporosis arthritis and pneumonia she doesn’t think she’ll be able to work much this year.
“I’ll do what I can but it’s very hard now for me,” she said.
Udala is determined to work when he can but as his seizures have become more frequent in the last six months he’s not sure how much he will be able to do.
“I go into the orchard and work as often as I can but when I’m not feeling well I can’t and no farmer can rely on me,” he said. “After my seizures I get overly tired. I used to be able to come back within in a few days but now it’s taking longer,” he said.
At one time the couple was mortgage free but in the late 1990s they decided to build a new house around the existing structure. The idea was to make the walls extra thick to help keep the heat in during winter and out during summer.
They took out a $40,000 mortgage to make their dream home a reality.
Unfortunately there were building problems that later caused a massive black mold infestation and the home was gutted.
“The year we were building it there was a lot of rain and that got into the house and wasn’t dealt with. It got into the insulation. There was insulation put under the floor joists and it created moisture under the house,” she said.
At one point the couple put a gas furnace in the home but it was improperly installed, creating moisture in the attic.
Two years ago Udala almost died after the black mold caused an infection in his blood stream.
They were forced to find funds to remediate the problem. They relied on a $30,000 line of credit to help while Udala was sick, and to start buying materials to fix their home.
Last year when their hydro bill problem began they lived outside in an RV using a wood stove to keep warm. They used minimal electricity in the house, just a small heater, Udala said.
“The idea was to make the home even more energy efficient. They say they want energy efficiency but we lived in a rat shack before we built our home in the 1990s and we paid nowhere near what they want now and it was losing heat and everything else,” he said.
At this point half the home has been cleared of black mold and they were trying to save money to have the other half completed.
“That won’t happen for quite sometime now. We’re just trying to get ahead and these things happen,” said Udala.
The couple has contacted a lawyer, as they still do not think they used all the power they are being billed for, and they are waiting to hear more about their legal options.
The Review contacted FortisBC to find out if there were any programs to help people who had suffered hardship because of the labour dispute.
Other than payment plan options no grants or aid programs are being offered at this time.
“The first higher than normal bill was a catch-up bill after the six-month labour dispute in which electricity consumption was estimated based on historical use. Once the labour dispute ended, we issued a bill based on a verified meter read. Unfortunately, it was a large catch-up bill, as the electricity use was significantly higher than estimated. We base our estimates on historical information from that address, so if electricity use changes dramatically that could affect a customer’s bill,” David Wylie, a corporate communications advisor for FortisBC, wrote in an email to the Review.
“We are committed to working with our customers. At FortisBC, we understand that utility costs, especially during the winter season, can be a hardship for some of our customers. In this case, we have been working with this customer for about a year and have offered payment plans, as a way to see if we can help spread out the outstanding balance.”