They say you can’t fight city hall but the citizens of the tiny community of Kitwanga in northwestern B.C. can claim a victory of sorts over BC Hydro, the province’s largest crown corporation.
And that’s by having BC Hydro agree to a credit for payments made over the years by the Kitwanga Community Association for streetlights that either never existed or were removed at some point with no official record of that taking place.
The dispute dates back to 2019 when an inventory was done of street lights in Kitwanga as part of a program to replace older lights with LED ones.
To the surprise of the Kitwanga Community Association, the count came in at 45 with BC Hydro saying six of the street lights were located in the Gitxsan village of Gitwangak which is adjacent to the larger area covered by the community association.
But just as surprising was the association finding that BC Hydro was charging for 42 lights when the association’s own count stood at 39.
The matter of the five Gitwangak streetlights was eventually tabled but the challenge remained that the two parties could not agree when the association was first overbilled at 42 lights or when exactly there there were 39 streetlights in service.
There was further confusion over who was paying for five streetlights at the intersection of Hwy 37 North and Hwy 16.
BC Hydro first offered a two-year credit for 2017 to 2019, the year when the discrepancies were first discovered, something immediately rejected by the community association, says its president, Cathy Morgan.
“They only went back as far as their policy said they had to,” said Morgan of the early on refund negotiations.
The association then sent BC Hydro copies of its monthly invoices from 2000, which was as far back as its records went, to 2017.
BC Hydro then came back with an offer of a credit beginning in 2011 “and that is when we knew we had a good case to take to the Ombudsperson,” said Morgan.
A January 2022 letter from Megan Welsh, an officer within the provincial Ombudsperson’s office, largely confirmed the community association’s position that it had been overcharged for years.
A hand-drawn map of streetlight locations provided by a BC Hydro employee in the late 1970s and used by the association for decades to report outages formed part of the documentation to bolster its claim.
Morgan said that map did prove contentious as the employee has long left BC Hydro and that the crown corporation’s own records proved spotty given that it closed Hazelton office some decades ago.
“I proposed to BC Hydro that although physical records identifying the date Kitwanga first held 39 streetlights were not available, the other records and information you provided, taken together, suggested that your account was credible …..” Welsh’s letter to the association stated.
She then indicated BC Hydro agreed to a credit dating back to January 2000 and up to 2019, a sum that came to $12,020.35. That’s compared to its offer of $4,930 for the years 2011 to 2017.
The association did ask for a lump sum payment but BC Hydro is instead crediting back its current monthly streetlight charges.
Morgan described the association’s experience as a cautionary tale for anyone or any organization dealing with a larger company or service provider.
“We accepted BC Hydro’s numbers as correct and that was part of our learning experience,” she said of the years it was being overcharged.
“Our takeaway is to always double check the bills received from BC Hydro or other utility ‘authorities’ as they aren’t always accurate.”
BC Hydro official Bob Gammer did acknowledge that the billing issue was resolved but said the crown corporation could not provide specifics.
He did refer to two sections governing BC Hydro’s billing procedures, one which indicates that if the date when over-billing first began cannot be determined with certainty, the maximum refund period is two years.
The second section provides more leeway, stating that if a dispute does not become formal under federal legislation applying to electrical and gas consumption, billing errors can be resolved based on available and reasonable records of customers and BC Hydro.