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Hydro One chair vows to fix erratic billing system

A power corridor runs alongside a residential development in Mississauga, Ont. The chair of Hydro One has promised to fix the utility’s error-plagued billing system.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

The chair of Hydro One is promising changes at the electricity distributor in the face of a major probe into billing problems and shoddy customer service.

James Arnett vowed to "hold management to account" for such shortcomings, including situations where Hydro customers were mistakenly sent massive bills – in one case in the tens of millions of dollars.

"It's not acceptable to me or the board," he said in an interview. "We'll hold management to account for that. And we'll see whether or not there are things that should be done differently going forward."

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Last week, ombudsman André Marin announced he will investigate the organization after getting a deluge of complaints about it over the past 10 months. Since that announcement, Mr. Marin's office said, more than 1,500 additional complaints poured in, bringing the total to 2,185 by Friday.

The Progressive Conservatives, meanwhile, demanded the government act immediately and turf Hydro One CEO Carmine Marcello. Energy critic Lisa MacLeod, who spoke with Mr. Marcello by telephone Tuesday, called on him to resign and asked Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli to fire him.

"During Mr. Marcello's tenure, billing problems have worsened, causing many Hydro One customers to lose faith and confidence in his ability to turn this mess around," she said in a statement.

Mr. Chiarelli's spokeswoman accused Ms. MacLeod of "playing political games," and said Hydro One has been taking action – such as hiring more staff and improving customer-service training – to deal with the problems Mr. Marin is investigating.

Even before the ombudsman became involved, Mr. Arnett said, he knew some customers were having trouble with the agency, and he had been trying to instill the company with a more customer-oriented mindset. Hydro uses customer satisfaction surveys, for instance, to calculate performance bonuses.

"We're aware of this not just because of the ombudsman – although that puts a little added spice to it," said Mr. Arnett, who has run Hydro's board since 2008. "I read the newspapers. And I really don't like to see … these stories of people that are having a hard time with Hydro One."

Mr. Arnett said he was also concerned by Mr. Marin's assertion that Hydro One has been unresponsive to the ombudsman's requests in the past.

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"I was, frankly, surprised and worried when he said that," Mr. Arnett said. "That's one of the things that we're going to have to sort out with management in the next little while, and I'm sure we will. That should not be the case and, if it is, then it's a problem."

Many of Hydro's troubles stem from a changeover to a new computer system to handle billing last spring. Some customers have been over-billed – one ski resort by more than $30-million – while others have had "estimated" bills and still more receive no bill for months and then suddenly find Hydro One has withdrawn thousands of dollars from their bank account.

Many of these customers have complained Hydro has not dealt with their problems when they bring them to the utility's attention.

Such complaints go back years. Mr. Arnett said these issues can be traced to Hydro One's days as part of the Ontario Hydro conglomerate, which controlled nearly all electricity infrastructure in the province before it was split into several agencies.

"Ontario Hydro, probably, used to be more oriented towards making sure they did the job properly, in terms of getting the electricity there reliably and so on," he said. "But they may not have been quite as customer-oriented as we would like it to be or as people frankly demand in today's world."

The probe also comes at a time when Hydro One is trying to expand its electricity distribution reach by taking over from local utilities in smaller centres.

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Mr. Marin's probe is expected to take nine months, after which he will write a report with recommendations for structural fixes to solve the utility's problems.

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About the Author
Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

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