Hydro One offers bill relief to Island eatery

Luc Noel stands in front of his family’s Little Current restaurant, Luc’s Pizza and Eatery, which has re-opened its doors following some financial relief from Hydro One after having to close its doors early this year due to high hydro costs. photo by Alicia McCutcheon

Public utility settles for half a loaf

LITTLE CURRENT—Luc’s Pizza and Eatery in Little Current has re-opened its doors following some relief from Hydro One.

On January 20, a mere seven months after opening, Luc’s Pizza and Eatery was shuttered, the owners citing high electricity costs and an inability to pay their Hydro One bills (which by this time had reached $12,000), causing the utility company to shut down the restaurant’s power.

In December, Hydro One announced its Winter Relief Program which sought to reconnect approximately 1,400 Hydro One residential customers who were disconnected due to unpaid bills.

“This program is about doing the right thing for our customers who are experiencing hardship,” said Ferio Pugliese, executive vice president, Customer Care and Corporate Affairs, in a Hydro One press release. “We are changing the way we do business and by doing so we are currently reviewing all of our customer-facing policies and practices, including how we care for our most vulnerable customers. The Winter Relief Program is one of many changes we will be undertaking.”

It appears Hydro One was feeling pressure from small businesses, like Luc’s Pizza and Eatery, too.

Proprietor Luc Noel immediately went to the media, sharing the story of a family trying to live out their dream of opening a restaurant serving home-cooked meals and delicious thin crust pizza—a dream that was dashed due to sky-high hydro bills. The attention he received was instant.

Soon after the media frenzy, Hydro One reached out to Mr. Noel and his wife Karen, suggesting the two work out a deal.

“They contacted us and said ‘we need to resolve this’,” Mr. Noel told The Expositor. “I said ‘I can tell you right now, I don’t have the money’.”

Mr. Noel proposed a $1,000/month payment on top of their monthly bill—this would clear the debt in one year’s time. The Hydro One representative countered with a $5,000 payment, with the rest of the $7,000 debt wiped clean.

On Monday of last week Mr. Noel had rounded up the money, deposited it into his bank account, informed Hydro One, and within two hours the hydro was back on.

Mr. Noel noted the restaurant lost a lot of money by having to throw out all the food when the power was turned off and is currently raising the capital needed to buy groceries for a fresh start. By Saturday the restaurant was open.

Mr. Noel said customers can expect a slight increase in prices, “but nothing major.”

The family is also looking to rid the restaurant of some of its electrical equipment in favour of propane as a cost savings measure. The husband and wife team will also be largely running the operation themselves, also to save money as they start back up again.

“This place has potential,” he added.

Mr. Noel told The Expositor that while he is pleased with Hydro One’s response, he informed them “they need to fix the larger problem.” He has spent plenty of time going over his bills and is baffled as to why their off-peak hours see the highest consumption—the time when the doors are closed and the ovens are off. “It’s costing almost twice as much when there is no one there,” he said.

“We’re going to give it another kick at the cat,” Mr. Noel said. “If it doesn’t go this time, we lose everything, and that’s the disheartening part.”

When contacted by The Expositor, Hydro One spokesperson Nancy Clark said that while she cannot comment on a specific case, the “Winter Relief Program was created to help our residential customers facing extreme hardship get reconnected during the winter. Hydro One works with residential customers and businesses on a case-by-case basis, to help get and keep their accounts in good standing.”

“We are changing the way we do business and are committed to being a customer-focused, well-managed company,” Ms. Clark added. “We are working to keep our costs down and keep any increases on our portion of the bill, the delivery line, to what is required to ensure that electricity is delivered to our customers when and where they need it.”

Last week the premier announced further relief coming to Northern and rural residents of the province who are facing “even more of a challenge” in paying their electricity bills. This comes on top of the $1 billion in a year in HST rebates already announced by the province.

“It’s long overdue,” Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Michael Mantha told The Expositor, referencing the premier’s news of a relief program.

“Ontarians, particularly Northern Ontarians, have been asking for this for a long time,” he added.

The MPP noted how beneficial it was to bring the Hydro One Ombudsman and Mr. Pugliese to Manitoulin to hear the concerns of residents firsthand as well as suggestions on how Hydro One can be more helpful to residents and businesses alike.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Mr. Mantha spoke of his work with Legions in the riding and seeing their bills credited or changes made to their billing, as well as area not-for-profits that were also struggling to keep the lights on.

“I keep hearing, day in and day out, about delivery fees—deliver fees that are higher than the actual usage,” the MPP continued.

Mr. Mantha said he is looking forward to getting back to Queen’s Park and especially the February 28 debate on the proposed legislation concerning Hydro One. “I look forward to questioning some of those decisions and ensuring they are not just a splash, something that looks good on paper, but actual, tangible savings that allow residents to pay their rent and put food in the cupboards.”

“This is the most important decision bar none—80 percent of the complaints that come into my office are about hydro,” Mr. Mantha added.

He spoke of a recent constituency clinic on Manitoulin where he met with a widowed pensioner who had been paying Hydro One bills that ranged from $700 to $1,400 a month. “She was in tears,” he said. Together they reviewed her bill and identified issues to bring to Hydro One’s attention which will mean a savings moving forward.

“There are so many proud people who just don’t ask questions, they just pay it,” he continued.

Mr. Mantha said he was overjoyed to hear the news of Mr. Noel and his family, with whom he had met last month.

“Luc and his family show the true spirit and heart of not giving up,” he said. “I’m happy to see that Hydro One responded and am very happy he’ll be reopening. I know they’ll do well and that the community will support them.”

Hydro One encourages any customer experiencing difficulties paying their bill to contact the customer communications centre at 1-888-664-9376.