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N.L. couple issues warning over seven-year power bill saga

Paula Tucker and Michael Tucker in their home in Carbonear. They want to share their story of unexpected bills and accounts they weren’t aware existed.
Paula Tucker and Michael Tucker in their home in Carbonear. They want to share their story of unexpected bills and accounts they weren’t aware existed. - Ashley Fitzpatrick

‘We didn’t have the $4,000’

The Tucker home in Carbonear. The house looks out onto Carbonear Bay.
The Tucker home in Carbonear. The house looks out onto Carbonear Bay.

Paula Tucker and Michael Tucker of Carbonear were financially and emotionally thrown when, in 2017, they were told they owed more than $3,300 to Newfoundland Power, based largely on unsettled accounts, years old. 

They told The Telegram they had no idea the accounts existed, having been out of the province at the time costs were incurred.

In an interview this week, they produced the bills provided by the power company, showing charges on different accounts for their home address, under the name Paula Tucker.

There were two bills for different times with the same name and address, but each with different account numbers. The accounts were also different from what the husband and wife had understood to be their only electricity account with Newfoundland Power.

They said they were at a loss.

The Tuckers had been playing catch-up with their electrical bill, but didn’t see a problem getting clear of that balance, until the additional bills were provided to them.

“For us, it became a very personal thing. We didn’t have the $4,000. I had to go to his 82-year-old mother. She had to go to the Scotiabank in Brampton, Ont., and apply for a non-secured credit card to pay this goddamn bill so we could get our power back,” Paula Tucker said, speaking through welling tears of frustration and embarrassment at having to ask for the help.

They tried to address the old bills with Newfoundland Power, to figure out why they existed, to no real avail.

Certain the bills shouldn’t exist, the Tuckers ultimately went the route of small claims.

Last month, on July 23, they were awarded a default judgement for $4,190.91.

Notice of the judgement was sent off to the power company last Friday.

Newfoundland Power has refused to comment for this story, saying the matter is “an ongoing legal matter,” despite not having contested the Tuckers’ claim, and the order being issued.

The detailed story

The Tuckers said they want to share details of their case for other property owners, as a warning. They’d also like to offer it to anyone who has found themselves encountering similar, surprise bills.

For them, it started in October 2011, when they decided to move to Alberta for a time, while still keeping their house on the water in Carbonear.

“I was always flying back and forth to Alberta,” Michael Tucker said, suggesting the turnarounds were taking a toll then.

It made sense to live out West, he said, then come back when they could.

“I figured I’d be home every night with her then, rather than being gone three or four months at a time,” he said.

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There was a final meter reading for their Carbonear bungalow, and final bill of $70.55 as they made their move.

“As far as we knew, that was the end of my power bill. We were done,” he said.

The couple ended up renting their home from October 2011 to November 2012. The tenant in Carbonear opened an account and paid bills in his own name. The tenant gave his notice and left when a relative passed and a family property became an option, Paula said.

This was when the first account unknown to them was apparently opened by the utility.

“They put it back in my name with no landlord tenant agreement or anything and it ran up to this amount,” she said, pointing to a June 2013 bill for $1,701.18.

“There was no one here to run up this bill. This house was empty, vacant,” she said, adding her understanding is the power was shut off.

They rented to another tenant. Again, that tenant had an account under their name and the Tuckers believed the power was shut off once the tenant left.

“(But) they opened up another account in my name, and ran it up to this amount,” she said, pointing to a bill for $1,615.97 from May 2014.

Automatic transfers possible

Newfoundland Power spoke generally on request, about the idea of different account numbers for a single property and landlord. A program for landlords and property owners does exist whereby Newfoundland Power will automatically maintain service and simply transfer the expense back to the owner after a tenant departs.

In those cases, The Telegram was told, a new account number would be created for each period of time where a rental property is without a tenant — potentially explaining the different accounts in the Tucker’s case.

But the Tuckers say they never signed up for the landlord program, or indicated that is what they wanted. They say no proof was ever produced to show they agreed to the program, with Newfoundland Power’s own rules and regulations stating landlords would have to “sign an agreement” to begin those automatic transfers.

Paula Tucker said she’s only the second name on their mortgage in any event, so any account opened should have been in either her husband’s name, or both names.

Delay in the bills

The couple returned to their Carbonear home at the end of 2014 and resettled. They had an inspection on the home as they returned and had to have some small electrical upgrades, including new grounding rods installed, with Newfoundland Power requiring its people on site before power was restored.

The couple began paying bills at that time on what they understood as their only power account. There was no mention of the unpaid bills, they said. And years passed. 

“We weren’t hiding anything. We’d come back; we contacted light and power; we said we’re the owners of the house, we want power back to the house. We weren’t hiding anything,” she said, suggesting the discovery of the old bills might have been tied to some questions they posed in 2017, about the power bill refund, tied to the rate stabilization plan. The years covered by the refund would have included time before the couple moved West. They were paying in, and wanted to know if they were receiving a refund.

As for the mystery bills from the power accounts created while they were away, the bills shown to The Telegram were marked with an address in Alberta. But the Tuckers say they don’t know where Newfoundland Power would have gotten the address — it’s one they moved on from before the bills were dated.

The couple also asked for the information Newfoundland Power had on hand, in starting the new accounts, receiving a printout of a computer screen capture. They showed The Telegram a printed page showing the screen capture, with no contact phone number showing in the information, no email contact and only the address of the Carbonear home.

“I just wonder how many other landlords have been put into this situation where they’ve had these monster bills when they returned home to properties that were never supposed to have power,” Paula Tucker said, freely sharing copies of power bills, email exchanges, notes from her phone conversations with customer service representatives, a financial statement showing the money transfer from Ontario they are anxious to repay and their court documents, including their copy of the default order from small claims.

“What got me is we weren’t even faced with it when we came home. We were faced with it three years later,” she said.

ashley.fitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

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