Paying hydro bills a 'struggle' for Windsor residents

Windsor West MPP Lisa Gretzky is presenting hundreds of hydro bills to Premier Kathleen Wynne and Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault to illustrate high electricity rates when the Ontario Legislature resumes this week.

'It’s either pay my hydro bill or put food on the table, I have to pick and choose each month'

Annette Riley says high hydro rates in Ontario force her to choose between paying the bills and buying food for her two kids. (Laura DaSilva/CBC)

Annette Riley dreads opening her hydro bill each month, afraid it means she will have trouble putting food on the table for her two kids.

She's one of thousands in Windsor-Essex — and across Ontario — who say they can't cope with hydro costs in the province.

"It's a struggle every day," Riley said. "I just dread getting the hydro bill in the mail every month. I just get caught up and then I have another bill I need to pay. I just try to get ahead and I can't."

MPP presents hydro bills to premier

Windsor West MPP Lisa Gretzky plans to present hundreds of hydro bills to Premier Kathleen Wynne and Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault to illustrate this problem when the Ontario Legislature resumes this week.

"I have the opportunity to walk across the floor in the chamber and place the bills on the desk of the minister of energy and the premier," Gretzky said. "It's to show them first hand what rates are doing to the people of Windsor and Essex County.

"I'm hoping it will spark a discussion, I'm hoping the energy minister and the premier will look at the bills I'm putting in front of them and realize the hardship it is for families in Windsor-Essex and across the province."

For Riley, her average hydro bill comes in between $320 and $350 per month. That translates to roughly $4,000 per year — just to turn on the lights, use the air conditioning in the summer and the heat her home in the winter.

"It's either pay my hydro bill or put food on the table, I have to pick and choose each month," she said.

Community groups feel the pinch

Lorraine Goddard, the CEO of United Way Windsor-Essex, says her organization does its best to help clients who need help paying the bills. But sometimes it isn't enough.

About a quarter of people applying for its emergency assistance fund come in because they can't pay their hydro bill, Goddard explained. She expects that number to rise as the hot weather continues.

Until there is a change in policy, Goddard said she doesn't think this will be resolved. 

"The cost is the cost," she said. "We need heat in the winter and we need to be at a reasonable temperature in the summer and it costs [money] to do both of those things.

"This is a much larger problem that is beyond our local community. You could go to any community across the province and have this same conversation."

Ron Dunn is the executive director of the Downtown Mission in Windsor, Ont. he says he sees residents looking for food so they can pay their hydro. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

At the Downtown Mission, expenses for hydro mean less money goes to providing services to Windsor's homeless population. 

When the last hike in April raised hydro prices by about $36 per year, Ronn Dunn, the mission's executive director said that cost represented about one meal per month at the mission. Though no one is ever turned away, Dunn said he sees the effects of hydro rates on the poor first-hand. 

"People have actually come in with their hydro bill in one hand and said 'If you can help me with food, then I can pay for some of this hydro bill before it gets cut off,'" Dunn said. "Once it's cut off, it's hard to get turned back on again." 

Hydro 'urgent' for province

Though there are provincial programs in place to help low-income Ontarians pay their bills, earlier this month Wynne spoke about this issue. She admits the support isn't getting to the people who need it.

"What I know is we haven't done enough," Wynne said. "Quite frankly, those concerns are things we now have to take to heart and we have to use them to inform our actions going forward."

Wynne calls hydro rates an "urgent" issue for the province and said the province may make changes to the Ontario Energy Support Program going forward.

Electricity rates are set by the province and have been increasing steadily as the province invests in cleaner energy. 

The Liberals' Sept. 1 byelection loss in Scarborough-Rouge River, which had been Liberal since its creation in 1999, gave Wynne "cause for reflection," Wynne admitted following the defeat.

"We heard at the door that hydro rates are increasingly challenging for people," she said. "I understand, as do my ministers, that the government needs to focus on helping people with their everyday expenses."