during the five years lake antiquarian Corp. has owned its commercial property at 1177 Yonge, the electricity bills have usually come in at less than $300 a month. That seemed just about right for a 1,900-square-foot business space.So you can imagine the jolt Don Lake got when he opened the Toronto Hydro envelope that arrived in the mail at the end of February and discovered an invoice for $190,875.57.
"Shock doesn't even begin to describe the feeling that overcame me," the rare book and art dealer said of his stunning encounter with the bold-face figure on the bottom line.
Lake, whose main store is on King East, immediately got on the phone to the local power retailer's customer service department. He wanted to know how his company could possibly be charged such an astronomical amount for what the invoice identified as a 15-day billing period. After all, his previous bill, for the month between January 11 and February 11, had been for what suddenly seemed a paltry $269.36.
"I phoned the customer care centre twice," Lake recalls. "The first time they hung up on me."
But on the second try he got a helpful account supervisor who agreed the bill must be some kind of mistake. The Toronto Hydro employee promised to check things out and called back within an hour to say an investigation was underway. A short time later, Lake received another call. This time he was told the bill appeared to be correct. New meter readings were apparently indicating that Lake Antiquarian had been underpaying its Yonge Street account for years.
According to Lake, the account supervisor then told him someone else would be in contact within 48 hours to pursue the matter further. By the time that call came, the folks at Hydro had finally come to the conclusion that an error had been made. Lake was told things would be put right.
Lake wrote a letter to Courtney Pratt, Toronto Hydro's president and chief executive officer, asking for an explanation of what had happened.
"What guidelines do you have in place that allow you to confirm the accuracy of your billing?" he asked. "Where is the point at which you hold back billing to confirm the accuracy and validity of a bill?" Lake wondered in print. "Why did it take so long for your utility to discover that the invoice was an obvious mistake?" the seller of old books and antique manuscripts wanted to know.
He wrote that his family "would have faced immediate and certain bankruptcy" if, as he was first advised, the bill for $190,875.57 had been correct. But there was no response from the CEO, who was said to be away on vacation when NOW contacted his office on Monday.
But Lake also wrote a letter to Wanda Liczyk, Toronto Hydro's senior vice-president and chief financial officer. Liczyk has an intimate understanding of billing irregularities dating back to her time as the city of Toronto's treasurer and CFO. It was on her watch that a three-year computer contract with MFP Financial Services worth $43 million turned into a five-year deal that has cost more than $100 million.
City council recently called for a judicial inquiry to discover how tens of millions of public dollars were spent without their prior knowledge or approval. This may help explain why Liczyk hasn't responded to Lake's request for her personal investigation of his electrical billing predicament. She's probably too busy prepping for the MFP probe.
None of this satisfies Lorenzo Berardinetti, the councillor for Ward 37 (Scarborough Centre), who is also a member of Toronto Hydro's board of directors. "This makes us look ridiculous," Berardinetti said earlier this week, adding "What troubles me even more is that it has taken so long for him to get a proper response."
Berardinetti personally contacted Hydro brass and asked them to get in touch with Lake immediately to apologize for the mistake and, hopefully, put the matter to rest.
"With power deregulation coming in May, we'd better have our act together," Berardinetti said.
Lake couldn't agree more.
"Hydro's attitude has been one of "when we get around to it we'll get around to it,'" he says. "What troubles me is, the error on my bill would seem to be obvious. But what about smaller mistakes that may not be so noticeable and easy to catch? Who knows how much some people have been overpaying without knowing it?"
These are good questions, deserving prompt and comprehensive answers. Unfortunately, it took until yesterday for Lake to get a letter from a representative of customer management services at Toronto Hydro. Gordon Baird thanked Lake for bringing his "extremely rare" billing problem to the attention of Hydro management, and presented him with a corrected invoice for $169.32. "It doesn't address any of the issues I've raised," Lake said.
Incidentally, his payment of $190,875.57 was due today. Needless to say, the cheque is not in the mail.