Calgary

Council to question Enmax on utility bills at closed-door meeting Thursday

City council gets the chance to question Enmax on Thursday about sky-high utility bills seen by Calgarians in recent month. But the biggest topic on the agenda is the dividend the corporation is paying to city budget.

Discussion of dividend Enmax pays into the city budget is also on the agenda

Enmax will meet Thursday with city council for its final quarterly meeting of the fiscal year to talk about everything from soaring utility bills to the corporation's annual payout to the city. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

City council gets the chance to question Enmax at a closed-door meeting Thursday about sky-high utility bills seen by Calgarians in recent month.

But the biggest topic on the council-driven agenda is the dividend the corporation is paying into the city budget. Council has asked Enmax to justify that it's paying enough to the city, its only shareholder.

Councillors told CBC News they're hearing from frustrated customers across the city who have seen both rate and fee increases. But they aren't sure how as a municipal government they could drive down costs.

"Definitely they're asking 'what could the city do?' And at the same time, 'what could the province do for them?'" said Ward 5 Coun. Raj Dhaliwal.

"They were hoping for some relief coming from the province, which didn't happen. So definitely that's a concern. And our job is to make sure that the cost of living is such that it's sustainable and not putting that extra pressure on the residents."

Last month, the UCP provincial government promised customers a $50 monthly rebate on their electrical bills, but many Calgary residents have seen bills increase by several times that amount.

Alison Lewis hopes city council is able to ask Enmax to better explain how fees are decided. (Submitted by Alison Lewis)

Alison Lewis is an Enmax customer who lives in Didsbury, and is one of many community members who texted CBC News Calgary as part of our ongoing effort to understand how the increases are impacting people. She says she hopes council will take this meeting as an opportunity to seek answers the average consumer is looking for.

"I want to know about all the extra (fees). It's not that I don't understand what the electricity costs and what natural gas costs, but they're making money hand over fist with all the extras," she said. 

"I pay more for the distribution fee that I do for the actual electricity. How can that be? It absolutely boggles my mind. And there's very little explanation, it's just sort of like 'live with it.'"

The City of Calgary is the sole shareholder of Enmax, which used to be a branch of the municipal government and is now a private company. Other aspects of the electrical system are regulated by the Alberta Utilities Commission. That body approves capital projects, which are then charged back to customers through fees.

Enmax is the default provider in Calgary; it often deals with customers who get behind on their bills.

Last December, councillors raised the dividend payout with Enmax, asking them to report back at the next private quarterly meeting.

"They said they would analyze it and get back to us, and then, of course, we will analyze their analysis and either agree that that makes sense or push for something different," said Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra. 

But when it comes to those record high bills, Carra says council has no power to set prices.

Dividends paid to the city annually by Enmax since 2009. (Enmax)

"That is a provincial decision to take the cap off, and there's very little we can do. We could conceivably take our entire dividend and … take that off people's power," he said. 

"But it would not be a significant savings. Then we would have to turn around and hike property taxes by that amount to make up for for what we were not getting from Enmax."

Ward 12 Coun. Evan Spencer said he'll also be looking for creative solutions to help ease the burden on Calgarians. 

"Seeing what can be done down the road to give Calgarians a little more certainty and maybe do a better job of communicating [and] trying to help our constituents prepare for that point in the calendar when energy prices go up and then the bills respond in kind," he said.

Dhaliwal said even though it doesn't lower utility bills, he hopes a higher payout to the city will benefit Calgary residents. 

"In a way, they're the shareholders, right?" he said. "If Enmax is making higher profit projections or revenue projections, I think that should definitely trickle down to the shareholders because they deserve some of that back as a return."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to safety on Calgary Transit. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson or reach her by email at lucie.edwardson@cbc.ca

Series produced by Elise Stolte

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