Faced with the inevitable, St. Thomas Energy this week voluntarily halted the practice of winter disconnects for unpaid bills. The decision was made a day before the province pulled the plug on such action.
“The OEB (Ontario Energy Board) has strict rules about disconnects and time periods and we have to offer pay arrangements and we’ve always followed the OEB guidelines on that,” advised Rob Kent, acting CEO at St. Thomas Energy.
“We are voluntarily agreeing to the moratorium on disconnects.”
The obvious question is what leverage does St. Thomas Energy now have collecting overdue bills during cold weather months?
“You do lose leverage during the winter months when you can’t disconnect, but what no one has really looked at is what happens when that period ends and the customer has a substantial bill? How do you help them make arrangements and get caught up without getting disconnected in the spring and summer months? That is something we’re going to have to address.”
If someone has financial issues going into the winter, it will surely be a grim picture come spring time.
“If a customer is having difficulty paying a $200 bill, they potentially have a $1,000 bill and how do we help them manage through that? There is a lot of pressure on the utility to help mitigate these rate increases.”
And what time frame is the province utilizing when it refers to winter months?
“We’re waiting to see how they’re actually going to define it because we’ve always assumed a December to March period,” explained Kent. “But no one has really definitively said what that period is. Because for Northern Ontario, it may mean a longer winter period. Will it need to be regionally adjusted? There really hasn’t been any direction around that and it just seems to be a lot of press around it and a lot of concerns.”
According to OEB data, nearly 60,000 households in Ontario had their hydro disconnected in 2015 – an increase of nearly 20 per cent over 2014.
Kent did not have figures available on the number of winter disconnects in St. Thomas.
“We have had disconnects and we do work with customers on pay arrangements and we do everything we can to help the customer through the period. The last thing we want to do is disconnect somebody because there are reconnection charges. It’s best to work with them to come up with a payment plan and let the customer hold to that so we can avoid the disconnect scenario.”
HOW’S THAT MERGER GOING FOR YA
Still with St. Thomas Energy, the proposed merger with Entegrus is taking up a large portion of Kent’s day, he chuckled during an interview Wednesday.
“We’re still aiming to have an agreement done by the end of April . . . both parties are working to get through this as efficiently and thoroughly as possible. There have been no hiccups or snags.”
Ideally, Kent said the target date remains the start of next year.
“We trying to get the official paperwork signed off in April, have a rate application before the OEB (Ontario Energy Board) some time in May and that gives them about six months to try and get the rate application approved and then effectively Jan. 1, 2018 we have a merged entity.”
He stressed both utilities are not rushing through the process to meet that proposed date.
“The deadline won’t dictate how thoroughly we go through the process.”
Naming and branding of the combined operation has not been touched upon at this time, Kent noted.
“No, we haven’t gotten that far yet. The re-branding is something that both companies are sensitive to. Right now, the real importance would be get the agreement done, get the cultures merged and get the companies feeling good about each other and working together and then that piece will follow along.
“One thing Entegrus has been consistent with is making sure the customers and employees have been taken care of first. Providing good customer service, being able to provide new ideas and boost new technologies coming out.”
OPPORTUNITIES, NOT CHALLENGES
Mayor Heather Jackson spoke of “a very bright future” for St. Thomas during her address Wednesday at the State of the Municipalities luncheon hosted by the St. Thomas & District Chamber of Commerce and featuring the mayors of St. Thomas, Central Elgin and Southwold.
Opening her presentation with, “I am St. Thomas proud,” Jackson documented a busy past year in the city, chock-a-block with infrastructure projects, initiatives like her community leaders cabinet, formation of an organization known as “the Mayors of Southwestern Ontario . . . to share information and ideas and build consensus around what is needed to build a strong and vibrant southwestern Ontario,” and a busy agenda of capital investment projects on the books for this year.
Two items of a more controversial nature caught our attention.
Jackson broached the subject of the pending utility merger with Entegrus Powerlines of Chatham-Kent with, “Let us now dispel the myth and share the reality of St. Thomas Energy.”
No reference was made to the reality St. Thomas ratepayers kept Ascent/St. Thomas Energy afloat for the longest time through the utility’s deferred payments of residential water bills which it collects on behalf of the city. Or is that part of the myth?
Jackson assured, “It will be business as usual as this merger progresses with no job losses and services will be maintained or improved . . . We will, as I already said, make sure that we consult with the public and hear your concerns and views.”
Those concerns and views should include questions relating to financial details of this transaction and what becomes of the accumulated long-term debt.
The second thorny issue to play out this year will see the city and the St. Thomas Professional Fire Fighters Association begin contract negotiations.
“This is not a challenge but an opportunity in front of us,” assured Jackson. “I am confident we will be able to negotiate a contract that is fair and equitable to the association members and taxpayers.”
An opportunity with the potential for significant fallout.
THE STAKES ARE HIGH
At that same luncheon Susan Gardner, vice-president of Municipal World Inc. in Union – a publication in existence since 1891 – was called upon to close out the proceedings. A globetrotter, Gardner offered a unique insight on St. Thomas and neighouring municipalities and municipal politics in general.
“Travelling in the U.S. recently and speaking about the election and the crazy kinds of things going on there right now, with policy shifts and consequences, including conaequences that are going to impact our communities right here in Canada. The potential for conflicts of interest on a scale we can’t even begin to imagine. The massive protests we see going on there right now.
“I was reminded during my time there daily that democracy requires work. And we can’t ever take it for granted that something similar couldn’t happen here. We can’t become complacent about democracy. . . about voting and participating in our community. Because what we do and don’t do, and not just on voting day, has real consequences, as many in the U.S. are finding out today. The stakes are high.
“Becoming involved, participating and voting is more than a freedom we enjoy, it’s a responsibility we have as citizens, too.”
Zooming in on a hyperlocal level, Gardner noted “In our community here, we’ve been really blessed to have great leaders, supported by good staff . . . and we can see from the many initiatives the mayors shared here today, the job these folks do is not an easy one. Great sacrifices are required and a huge commitment. It is a life of service. It’s not a self-serving kind of service, it’s public service.”
And in this new era of false news and alternative facts, Gardner stressed the importance of local media, “that continues to play a role in helping to safeguard those processes that are the foundation for it all . . . and we can never take that for granted. The responsibility is on all of us to stomp out cynicism where we encounter it and to support the media in holding our elected officials to account and demanding transparency and accountability.”
THE POVERTY DIVIDE
With two dozen municipal and social/community agency representatives in attendance, MPP Jeff Yurek garnered valuable insight on rural and small town poverty at his roundtable discussion Friday at the CASO station.
“It was to get a sense of what rural poverty is and what it is in our area,” advised Yurek afterward. “What’s available and what barriers are out there for people. Too often policies are developed in Toronto with an urban lens and we need to look at it with a rural point of view. It’s different living in rural Ontario and we need to have a balance in policies to ensure we can help get people out of poverty in rural Ontario”
He continued, “The top issues I’m hearing are housing, energy, food security, transportation and mental health support. It’s not too shocking that those are concerns, but it’s something we need to have a focus on going forward. And come to solutions that fit rural Ontario. You can’t have the solutions in Toronto, they have more resources to access, easier transportation systems. Rural Ontario needs a different solution and we need to ensure there is a balance in policy.”
We’ll have much more on this important dialogue coming up shortly.
WHAT’S IN A NAME . . .
Although little but scars remain on the Moore Street property, another chapter in the legacy of Alma College is now playing out in Toronto where a move is underway to name a new school in honour of a graduate and teacher at the former private school for girls.
With thanks to spacing.ca/Toronto; Fife and Drum, the Friends of Fort York’s quarterly newsletter; Stephen Otto and Donna Robertson, past-president of the Alma College International Alumnae Association; we are able to forward details on efforts to name Fort York Neighbourhood School in Toronto after Jean Earle Geeson.
As documented in Fife and Drum, “Jean Earle Geeson (13 Oct. 1864 – 4 Oct. 1907), teacher, artist, journalist, and early champion of Fort York, was born in London, England, the youngest of six children of William Geeson and Emma Dansey. Her father, listed in the 1861 British census as a coffee-house keeper in Finsbury, London, was a linen draper by trade. He came with his family to Canada in August 1865. They settled first near Streetsville, Peel County, Ontario, but moved to London, Ontario, when Jean was about nine.
“She attended primary school in London and continued her education at that city’s Western Art School,” the article continues. “Having enrolled at Alma Ladies’ College in nearby St. Thomas in 1887, she graduated two years later with honours in Fine Arts. Her studies were guided by the well-known painter Frederic M. Bell-Smith, RCA, who was then director of Alma’s Art Department. In 1890-92 Geeson continued her training at the Cooper Union, New York City, and Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. In the mid-1890s she taught art in a ladies’ school in Harlem and worked briefly as a designer and decorator for the ‘Corona Novelty Glass firm’ . . . until ill health forced her return to Canada. Appointed a teacher of painting at Alma College in 1896, she held that post until her resignation in late 1900.”
She moved to Toronto in December of that year and included in her many achievements in education and the preservation of Fort York as a heritage site, Geeson “authored a 16-page illustrated booklet, The Old Fort at Toronto, 1793-1906, published on the strength of an order from the Board of Education for 3000 copies for presentation to senior classes throughout the city.”
A formal proposal to name the new school after Geeson has now been made to the Toronto District School Board trustee representing the ward in which it is to open in 2018/19.
You have to love the support around St. Thomas and beyond for D.J.Kennington. The fastest snow plow operator in North America has already done us proud. A lot of people will be riding in that Lordco/Castrol #96 Sunday in Daytona!