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Utility fee increases not "sneaky way" way of raking in more cash, city says

Lack of information leads to confusion over temporary increase in fees while St. Albert transitions to more up-to-date billing
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St. Albert says it will do a better job in communicating with residents on utility bill changes, after some residents thought the city snuck extra fees onto their utility bills with the switch to monthly billing.

Residents with sharp eyes may have noticed their total flat rate fees increased by up to $13 after St. Albert switched from bi-monthly to monthly billing in July. Some residents wrote to the Gazette, describing this as sneaky antics to increase utility fees.

Gordon Cochrane wrote in an email that he wondered if the change to monthly billing was foolish or in fact a “calculated tactic to suck more money” out of residents.

“I believe this was forthrightly calculated as everyone would see reduced bills and not pick up on the increases of each line item,” Cochrane said.

But St. Albert utilities and accounts receivable controller Ashleigh Campbell explained residents are temporarily being charged for a month plus one sixth of a month, as the city gradually transitions to more up-to-date billing over the next six months.

Before the switch, when residents received a bill in the mail it would be for usage from a month prior. Starting in February, as soon as the billing period is complete residents will receive their bill in the mail for that period, which Campbell said would lead to greater understanding of usage.

“We saw an opportunity with monthly billing – and as well with the (smart) meter project now being complete – that we have this data available that we can start billing more up to date so we can generate a bill at the end of that month for that current month,” Campbell said. She added this would allow residents to understand how their usage relates to how much they pay. It would have the added benefit of alerting residents to a possible leak, if water consumption looks abnormal.

As an example, the bill residents received on July 31 of this year was for the billing period May 1 to June 30.

When monthly billing kicked in with an Aug. 31 bill, the period was July 1 to August 5 – a month plus five days. After the city completes its transition to more up-to-date billing, residents will receive a bill on Feb. 28 for the billing period of February 1 to 28.

Campbell admitted the city missed giving out information in residents’ August bills explaining why they may see their flat rates going up, and they will try to make up for that error by inserting explainers in September and October bills.

Once the transition is complete, Campbell said flat fees will return to the regular monthly rate, but at 2020 rates. Those rates have not been set yet.

Coun. Ken MacKay said a lesson learned is the city could do a “bit better job in communicating” about the changes.

“I think what we needed to do was get that information out. Because a lot of people do look at their utility bills and (are) thinking, 'Is this kind of a sneaky way of going behind residents’ backs and increasing utility rates?' ” he said.

Even considering the fee increase is temporary, some low-income St. Albertans may be hard-hit by a what appears to be a nominal increase for some.

Liselotte Engler, 84, lives on a fixed old age security income and said she was quite upset to see the increased fees on her bill.

“The numbers are getting bigger and bigger and bigger that are using the food bank because they can’t make it anymore,” she said. “Then they add on this and why should I not be upset?”

MacKay said he understands this perspective, that even a $13 increase “can mean a big difference in their monthly billing, even if it is a temporary increase.”

In discussions around other city hall issues, MacKay has frequently used the term “unintended consequences,” and he said it may apply in this situation again.

“You make a change in one policy and you honestly believe you’re doing it because you think it’s benefitting the majority of residents, but you find out you’ve created a hardship for other people, unintended,” he said.

The city does offer a utility relief grant program through the St. Albert Community Village. It is a one-time grant and the amount depends on household type. Applications can be found on the St. Albert Community Village and Food Bank website.

Hannah Lawson

About the Author: Hannah Lawson

Hannah Lawson joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2019 after working as editor of the Athabasca Advocate. She writes about city hall.
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