Who says you can’t fight city hall and win? A growing chorus of Calgarians complaining about inexplicably large water bills will have their money refunded and citizens will no longer have to battle the City of Calgary or its billing agent, Enmax, to keep their hard-earned money for water they never used.
It’s a huge win for the so-called “little guy” — and not just for those who have already been charged thousands of dollars for water they insist they never used or wasted, but for all Calgarians who could be hit with exorbitant bills for water that either leaked accidentally or where no leak or problem could be determined.
On Wednesday, at a media conference in front of the iconic two-toned brick water treatment building visible from the Glenmore reservoir, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said that after Postmedia reports of numerous irregularities, the city is changing its bill adjustment procedures for customers who experience “extraordinarily high water consumption bills.” While the policy was changed as of Wednesday, Nenshi said the city will retroactively reimburse high bills.
Under the new policy, customers who fix leaks in a reasonable amount of time (after being contacted by Enmax) will no longer have to pay the large bill. They will be billed on their monthly average use.
For those customers where the leak is more difficult to detect, the city and Enmax will work with them to identify the problem. Once the problem is identified and fixed within a reasonable amount of time, the customers will be billed on their average use.
Nenshi has also ordered an independent investigation into the efficacy of water meters in Calgary.
While Nenshi credited the individuals who came forward and the media with bringing this issue to the fore, he deserves a lot of credit for finding a resolution rather than allowing city water bureaucrats and Enmax officials to put out inane statements about “taking customers’ complaints very seriously” but sticking them with enormous bills for water they never used and then threatening to cut off their service if they don’t promptly pay up.
Verginia Ghobrial-Said said that she, her husband, Ramez Said, and their 14-month-old son, Sebastian, “are going to celebrate this fantastic news” by going out for a special dinner that they couldn’t afford thanks to the onerous $4,070.44 bill they received from Enmax, with $3,800 of that being for water they supposedly used.
“We really love The Keg,” said a jubilant Ghobrial-Said. The 31-year-old investment adviser assistant says this change in the city’s billing policy has done a lot more than ease a significant financial burden for her budget-conscious young family.
“This move by Mayor Nenshi and the city restores my faith in Calgary, its systems and in Canada. This is worth so much more to us than $4,000. This is proof to us of why Canada is so great,” she said. “Unfairness and injustice can be fought and won. That we — the regular people, with the help of a free media that is not tied to the government — can change things, that is really an incredible feeling,” says the Canadian citizen who is originally from Egypt.
The Said’s water bill indicated that they had used 1,180 cubic metres of water between Feb. 25 and April 26, or about 600 cubic metres per month, when ordinarily they use no more than 17 cubic metres per month. They had no leaks and even had an independent plumber come to check their Coventry Hills house — telling them every appliance, faucet and toilet was working fine. They had the city replace their water meter and since then have had no problems, but were still ordered to pay monthly instalments over 15 months to cover the huge bill.
After their story appeared in the Calgary Herald, Postmedia received more than 150 emails and calls of similar stories of severely spiked water costs, ranging from $300 to $5,600.
Nenshi said that anywhere from 70 to 100 people per month — just a fraction of one per cent of the city’s 350,000 water customers — have issues with their bill. Nenshi said when this story started gaining ground during his so-called holiday, he decided he had to get together with Calgary’s water resources and Enmax and “figure something out.”
No longer will tearful and fearful citizens be forced to beg for payment leniency (of up to 40 per cent) from the city monopoly for water they say they didn’t use. Those unbalanced, humiliating negotiations are over.
“So, thank you for raising these stories,” said Nenshi, referring to the families that allowed their names and faces to be used to illustrate a greater problem.
It’s now as clear as water that regular citizens really can beat city hall. That should flood us all with a sense of relief.
Licia Corbella is a Postmedia columnist.