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7,200 Toronto residents missed their utility bills. Now they have to pay

7,200 Toronto residents missed their utility bills. Now they have to pay
7,200 Toronto residents missed their utility bills. Now they have to pay

Over the past year, Jeff Wang and his family have used all the water they need and had their trash collected, but inadvertently they haven’t paid for it.

That’s because Wang says the city didn’t send him his last two utility bills. Utility bills are issued three times a year, and because he has an automatic payment system, Wang didn’t notice he didn’t get a bill until he filed his taxes in March.

“I logged into the city website for my account and it said I owed them zero dollars,” Wang said. “But I clearly used water and had my trash picked up.”

In March, he emailed the city to warn them, but he didn’t receive a response until June, three months later.

“There will always be bureaucracy, but what I am a little surprised about is the fact that there is so much inefficiency when it comes to actually collecting money,” Wang said, pointing to the budget deficit.

It turns out that Wang is one of 7,200 people whose water meter transmission units are broken, meaning their water usage has not been reported to the city for billing. The city says it does not know exactly how long the meters have been broken.

Now the city is working on a plan to replace all of Toronto’s transmitters — at least 465,000 — just nine to 14 years after they were installed. Meanwhile, residents whose meters don’t report their usage will be stuck with hefty catch-up bills for the missed payments.

‘Sticker shock’

For Wang, that meant a bill of $1,400.

“It was a bit of a shock to see it,” he said. “Luckily I had enough money to pay for it. But in this current economy and with inflation and everyone struggling, I can totally see someone not having that in their budget.”

The municipality says that while water and waste collection costs are managed separately, they are on the same bill, which is why some customers did not receive a bill for waste collection.

Jeff Wang received this catch-up bill from a utility company, charging him for 305 days of water usage and trash collection. (Provided by Jeff Wang)

Between 2010 and 2015, the city has Automated water meter reading programwhere every home and business in Toronto was fitted with new meters that send water usage directly to the city for billing. At the time, it was estimated that 465,000 meters would need to be replaced.

The new meters eliminated the need for city workers to go into people’s homes to take a reading. But because the transmitters were broken, those readings weren’t sent to the city.

The city does not want to say how much money it should get back from the missed invoices. But if, like Wang, 7,200 residents didn’t pay the average $1,040-a-year water bill for 10 months, the city would likely have to collect more than $6 million. That figure doesn’t include recoupments from garbage collection.

Municipal staff noticed an ‘increase in disruptions’ last winter

Beth Waldman, chief communications officer for the City of Toronto, says the city is committed to working with affected residents to “address their concerns and ensure fair and flexible treatment throughout this process.”

Waldman said 7,200 customers were “initially impacted” by a malfunction in the water meter transmission unit, which resulted in some customers receiving higher-than-normal bills in May and June — reflecting about six to eight months of usage. When asked if more customers were ultimately impacted, the city did not respond.

Wang’s water meter is located in his basement. City officials asked him to send a photo of the meter, which provided an actual reading of his usage. He was then billed $1,400 for 10 months of usage. (Laura Pedersen/CBC)

“While it is normal for one to two percent of water meters and bills to experience problems each year for various reasons, City of Toronto staff noted an increase in the number of outages this past winter,” Waldman said in an email.

“Although the water meters themselves are still working, after further analysis and consultation with the supplier it was confirmed that the transmission units of the water meters were failing more often than normal.”

Waldman says the city is working with the vendor to develop a strategy to replace all of the city’s water meter transmission units, with the replacement expected to begin this year.

The city would not say what the replacement would cost, but said the transmission units are still under extended warranty.

Waldman added that the problem exists in many other jurisdictions as well.

Affected residents are being transitioned to estimated billing

To minimize the financial impact going forward, users who have not received a bill in more than five months and are on the city’s standard four-month billing cycle will receive a bill every three months for four months’ usage until their account is current, she said.

Affected residents have been automatically switched to estimated billing, which is based on their past water usage. However, they can submit manual readings if they prefer.

“The city has used estimates in the past and, with a few exceptions, the estimates are very close to actual usage,” Waldman said.

City of Toronto spokesperson Beth Waldman says the city is committed to working with affected residents to “address their concerns and ensure fair and flexible treatment throughout this process.” (Michael Wilson/CBC)

The executive director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation in Ontario said the issue raises broader concerns about the way the city is operating, especially given its $17 billion budget.

“The last thing politicians should be doing is asking for tax increases when in this case they clearly can’t even afford the most basic services,” said Jay Goldberg.

‘I don’t think the responsibility should lie with homeowners’

Wang says he didn’t get a bill until he contacted the city and was asked to send staff a photo of his meter, which showed his actual water usage.

A few days later, he received the bill for $1,400 for water use and trash collection for 305 days, from August 2023 through June 2024.

He now wonders how long the problem would have lasted if he had not called the council.

“I don’t think the responsibility should be on the homeowners,” he said. “It would also have been nice if the city had been proactive in communicating about this issue.”

He says he is speaking about his experiences not to criticize the city government, but to draw attention to the problem and because he wants to ensure that the city gets all the money it is entitled to.

“I wonder how many other revenue streams the city is losing,” he said.

According to the city, residents who have questions about their water meter bill can call 311.