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Alberta senior paid electric utility thousands of dollars too much

Art Beckingham from Sturgeon County, Alta. says electricity utility FortisAlberta has overcharged him for at least a decade, but won’t pay him back.

FortisAlberta insists it won’t refund money

Art Beckingham believes he has paid Fortis Alberta $5,000 too much because of a mix-up. But he won't get the money back. 2:29

A senior in Sturgeon County, Alta. says electricity utility FortisAlberta has overcharged him for at least a decade, but won’t pay him back.

Art Beckingham estimates the company owes him $5,000.

“It’s somebody else’s error, not mine,” Beckingham said.

FortisAlberta said it’s only following the terms and conditions of its licence and can’t make refunds retroactively.

Beckingham, 79, said he discovered in August 2013 that his monthly electricity bill was significantly more than his neighbour’s for a similar-sized property.

Beckingham’s bills show that for the previous ten years FortisAlberta had classified his 11 acre (4.5 hectare) rural acreage as a farm, and levied delivery charges that were at least $50 a month more than for a residential property.

“Since 1976, when I came here, it’s never been a farm,” Beckingham said. “It’s just a country acreage, that’s all it is.”

Acreage wrongly classed a farm, resident says

Beckingham moved from St. Albert to the property south of Villeneuve so he could  enjoy a rural lifestyle.

“If somebody had asked me then, are you farming, well, obviously I would have said no, because I have never farmed. I always worked in business in downtown Edmonton.

“I don’t know who designated me ‘farm’,” he said.

Beckingham believes his property was the homestead site of an original farm, but said the property was subdivided before he bought it.

“This is the original farm, but it has never, ever been farmed in my time here, which is going on 40 years,” he said.

Just one word on Beckingham’s bill indicated his electricity delivery charges were for a farm -- at least $50 a month more. Note: CBC News has altered this photo to remove Buckingham's account information. (CBC)
Since discovering the error, Beckingham said he has talked to FortisAlberta, his retailer EPCOR, the Alberta Utilities Commission, the Alberta Utilities Advocate, and the office of Alberta’s energy minister.

“I thought it would be quite simple to correct,” he said.

“I was kind of being pushed off. We can’t do anything for you. Kind of, ‘go away’. That’s the feeling I got.”

He even tried to make his case to Karl Smith, former CEO of Fortis Alberta, and H. Stanley Marshall, CEO of Fortis Inc.

In the end, the most FortisAlberta would offer was a $500 “goodwill gesture”.

“I think they are so big they forget about the individual customer. And I think that’s rather sad,” Beckingham said.

‘Isn’t a lot we can do,’ Fortis says

Alana Antonelli, communications manager for FortisAlberta, said she wouldn’t comment specifically on Beckingham’s case, but said it’s the customer’s responsibility to notify the company if it should be billing differently.

“When a customer purchases a property, or is a new customer, or their service level changes, we rely on our customers to get in touch with us to let us know of their service level requirements,” Antonelli said.

FortisAlberta began charging Beckingham the lower residential rate in December 2013, but says it can’t refund any overpayments from before that.

“Billing will go forward from the date the customer notifies us of those changes in their requirements,” Antonelli said.

“And so from that point there really isn’t a lot we can do.”

“It’s standard in our terms and conditions that we move forward with people, that we can’t go backwards from there.”

Antonelli said the terms and conditions are posted on FortisAlberta’s website for customers to read.

The terms and conditions are contained in a 76-page legal document which can be found by searching “terms and conditions” at www.fortisalberta.com. The customer’s responsibility to notify the company of any changes to service is set out beginning on page 18.

Not fair, but legal, expert says

David Gray, a consulting economist who once worked in the utilities industry as well for the Utilities Commission and the Utilities Consumer Advocate, said $500 is probably the best Beckingham can hope for. He’s surprised FortisAlberta offered even that much.

“Sadly, my own advice would be to take it,” Gray said.

He said the law will side with FortisAlberta, even though Beckingham is not at fault.

“I don’t believe that it’s fair,” he said.

“They say the law is an ass, but the law doesn’t take those sort of extenuating circumstances into account very often.”

Gray said utility companies follow their terms and conditions to the letter because they are “creatures of legislation”.

“Utilities don’t need to market (themselves). They don’t really need to worry about consumer satisfaction. They have a monopoly in their service area,” Gray said.

Gray said the Alberta Utilities Advocate should have taken up Beckingham’s case, if only to warn others to check their bills.

“Perhaps that’s the good that will come out of this story,” he said.

Service Alberta spokesperson Scott Seymour said advice for Beckingham’s situation is contained on the Utilities Consumer Advocate webpage, at the top of the FAQ section.

Beckingham said he’s not ready to give up and hopes talking to Go Public will help him get his $5,000 back.

“There’s no dispute that I was overcharged, or of the amount of money involved. They agree with that,” he said.

“They kind of offer me five hundred bucks. Was it five hundred bucks to go away?”

A spokesman for Alberta Utilities Commission has told Go Public the commission is now looking at Beckingham’s case.