Alberta farmer hit with $3,789 monthly gas bill

A farm owner in central Alberta says he cannot make sense of his January gas bill and can't convince anyone he was overcharged by thousands of dollars.

January gas bill tallies more than all bills in 2012 combined

Sid Morris, a central Alberta farmer, was shocked to find his January gas bill totalled $3,789. (CBC)

A farm owner in central Alberta says he cannot make sense of his January gas bill and can’t convince anyone he was overcharged by thousands of dollars.

"I couldn’t believe when I saw the $3,789 bill," said Sid Morris. "That was $45.26 higher than my entire bill the previous year."

Morris operates a motel and conference centre on his property. (CBC)

Morris, 81, owns a quarter section of land north of Alix which was first settled by his father in the early 20th century.

He now operates the property as a motel and conference centre and hosts weddings and family reunions.

But he insists he had no guests this past winter and that the heat was off in all the buildings except for the main lodge.

"The bill should have been less because none of the buildings were being used," said Morris.

'It's not logical or reasonable'

His gas bill for November 2012, including taxes and delivery charges, was $535. In December it rose to $700.46. In February the bill fell to $292.71

"It’s not logical or reasonable," he said. "The only thing I could think of was there must have been a gas leak or something wrong with the meter."

Morris buys his gas from Chain Lakes Gas, a rural cooperative.

Sven Sorensen, Chain Lakes’ General Manager, said the company takes actual meter readings every three months and that the November and December bills were estimates based on Morris’s past usage during those months.

When the January reading was unusually high, the company replaced the meter and sent it to be tested.

Barchard Engineering Ltd of Edmonton, determined the meter was working properly, even slightly favouring Morris.

Sorensen then told Morris to expect a very large bill.

"Either the meter malfunctions," said Sorensen, "or you have a leak downstream of the meter, or the consumer burned it - one of the three."

Sorensen says if there had been a leak, Morris’s meter would show him still using abnormally high amounts of gas. With the meter verified, he says the only remaining explanation is that Morris used the gas.

Morris doesn’t believe it and has refused to pay.

The Co-op threatened to cut off his gas in March.

Company gives ‘benefit of the doubt,’ reduces bill

Instead of cutting off Morris’s gas, it gave him him a cheque for $1,496.25, saying it was giving him "the benefit of the doubt."

"But that still doesn’t explain why the bill was so high," Morris said. "I don’t know what benefit of the doubt they’re giving me, or where the doubt is."

Chain Lakes said there is a "remote" chance the meter rolled ahead on its own, a chance Barchard Engineering, the Edmonton company that tested the meter, also says is extremely rare.

"So we just met him halfway," said Sorensen. "Just because there’s a very, very remote chance something was out of order there, even though it was never proved."

No one to turn to, says farmer Morris says he’s forced to accept the company’s ruling as final.

"I think in a co-op there should be some kind of an appeals committee - a neutral board that would hear what I had to say and what the company people had to say," he said.

Co-ops answerable only to members

Unlike private companies, rural gas co-operatives aren’t regulated by the Alberta Utilities Commission. They are answerable to their members and set their own rates.

"We don’t have a mandate to be involved in gas co-ops," said Jim Law, AUC Director of External Relations.

Law said that legally the AUC could only intervene in very limited circumstances - if a co-op was violating its own agreed-to rate structure or was discriminating against a member.

"If it’s another issue then we simply don’t have the jurisdiction to take a look at that," Law said.

The Federation of Alberta Gas Co-ops is an umbrella organization for 53 co-ops, but also has no powers to rule in a dispute.

"We have no hammer," said Lyle Kuzik, the federation’s executive director.

Kuzik says the federation’s role would be limited to providing information and suggestions to the two sides. And while he admitted he would question a bill like Morris’s if he received it himself, he said a bill of that size isn’t impossible.

"When I talk to my guys, that’s not a whole lot in three months," he said.

Sid Morris has made some payments on the bill, but still owes more than $700 which he refuses to pay.

He’s not sure what he, or Chain Lakes Gas, will do next.

"If it wasn’t so expensive, it would be a good idea to have them explain it in court," he said.