Halifax Water’s regulator has sided with a customer, allowing her to appeal an “extraordinarily high” water bill that said she consumed nearly 10,000 litres of water daily for more than a month.
According to a Utility and Review Board (UARB) decision, written by board member Stephen McGrath and released last week, Aline Fineberg has lived in her approximately 125-year-old south end Halifax home for 25 years. She has no dishwasher, no washing machine, and no children living with her.
Halifax Water notified Fineberg of a “dramatic increase” in her consumption last fall, claiming she’d used 9,684 litres of water per day from the end of October to mid-December — more than 86 times her normal daily consumption of 112 litres.
It’s enough water to fill an average, 40-gallon bathtub 64 times a day, or flush an older toilet 734 times a day. It’s enough to fill a round swimming pool 20 feet in diameter every four days.
“Ms. Fineberg now has a water bill that is extraordinarily high, and she is at a loss to understand how she could have consumed that much water. She does not have children living with her and says that she does not own higher water consuming devices such as a dishwasher or washing machine. She had a plumber inspect the property, but he found no evidence of any leak,” McGrath wrote in the decision.
“Ms. Fineberg said that the problem seems to have corrected itself because her rate of water consumption returned to lower levels without her doing anything.”
Halifax Water’s contractor had installed one of its new smart water meters in Fineberg’s home a few weeks before the spike in recorded consumption, in late September 2019. The utility removed and tested it in January, “and the meter appeared to pass testing at that time.”
Fineberg initiated a complaint about her bill on Jan. 20, 2020. Halifax Water’s dispute resolution officer issued a decision on March 18, siding with the utility and ordering Fineberg to pay the bill.
She had 30 days to appeal that decision, but did not do so until June 2 — 76 days after the decision.
“Ms. Fineberg acknowledged that the appeal was filed later than 30 days but said that she had been dealing with several other issues relating to the COVID-19 pandemic,” McGrath wrote.
The decision quotes Fineberg:
I got his [the Dispute Resolution Officer’s] letter dated March 18. Then COVID-19 happened and my life turned upside down as did many others. I have my own business and I have found being unemployed stressful. I had managed to rearrange my life, however when I received the DRO’s letter I could not believe what I read. I had just closed my store and then came home to this. Just for one second please try to understand my point of view and understand how frustrated I must be. And once again COVID has changed things for me and I was too busy taking care of a lot of things. I have 3 children and 3 grand-children and a 90 yr old mother who has needed me as well. Needless to say, I have felt very torn in the last 3 months.
Halifax Water argued the UARB had no authority to extend the appeal period and hear Fineberg’s case:
Any reasons for why the Customer did not file the appeal within the 30-day appeal period cannot be considered because the Halifax Water Regulations do not grant authority to the Board to extend the appeal period.
The jurisdiction to hear the Customer’s appeal has expired. The Board cannot hear this appeal.
McGrath disagreed, citing the board’s powers under the provincial Public Utilities Act to approve an appeal period and to investigate matters related to the utility. While he wrote that the board should not make a habit of allowing longer appeal periods, this was a special case due to the pandemic:
Although the appeal was filed 46 days after the expiry of the 30-day appeal period, the timing of the Dispute Resolution Officer’s decision coincided with the onset of personal and societal disruptions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The initial order of the Chief Medical Officer of Health was issued on March 13, 2020, just a few days before the date of the Dispute Resolution Officer’s decision. A few days later, on March 22, 2020, the Province of Nova Scotia declared a state of emergency. The Board accepts that Ms. Fineberg’s ability to proceed with an appeal would have been impacted by the prevailing public health emergency which is still in effect.
McGrath also noted the recent installation of the new smart meter:
Additionally, the Board believes that the questions raised in Ms. Fineberg’s appeal warrant additional investigation. The unusual period of significantly increased water consumption appears to have started and stopped without any apparent cause. The Board understands that the accuracy of Ms. Fineberg’s meter was tested and was satisfactory, and while an investigation of abnormally high consumption on the customer side of the meter is not the responsibility of Halifax Water or the Board, the installation of a new AMI water meter shortly before the problem occurred raises questions that should be considered.
Fineberg declined to comment while the case is still before the board.
Asked the total of Fineberg’s bill, Halifax Water spokesperson James Campbell said in an email he couldn’t provide any details about the bill for privacy reasons.
“As to the NSUARB decision, it is preliminary with an Order to follow. When Halifax Water receives the Order from the NSUARB we will review it and determine next steps,” Campbell wrote.