7,200 Torontonians didn’t get utility bills. Now, the city is replacing all its water meter transmitters | CBC News

For the last year, Jeff Wang and his family have been using all the water they needed and getting their garbage picked up, but were inadvertently not paying for either. 

That’s because Wang says the city didn’t send him his last two utility bills. Utility bills are issued three times a year and because he’s on an automatic payment system, Wang didn’t notice he wasn’t getting billed until he was doing his taxes in March.  

“I logged on to the city website for my account and it said I owed them zero dollars,” Wang said. “But I was clearly using water and getting my garbage collected.”

He emailed the city in March to alert them but didn’t receive a response until June — three months later. 

“There’s always going to be bureaucracy, but what I am slightly surprised by is the fact that when it actually involves collecting money, there is this much inefficiency,” Wang said, noting the city’s budget shortfall

It turns out Wang is one of 7,200 people whose water meter transmission units have broken, which means their water usage hasn’t been reported to the city for billing. How long the metres have been broken, the city says it doesn’t know exactly. 

Now, the city is working on a plan to replace all the transmitters across Toronto — at least 465,000 — just nine to 14 years after they were installed. Meanwhile, residents whose meters haven’t been transmitting their usage are having to pay large catch-up bills for the missed payments.

‘Sticker shock’

For Wang, that meant a bill of $1,400.

“It was a bit of a sticker shock to see it,” he said. “Fortunately, I had enough cash to pay it. But, in this current economy and with inflation and everyone’s struggling, I can totally imagine someone not having that in their budget.”

The city says although water and garbage collection charges are managed separately, they are on the same utility bill, and so some customers were also not billed for garbage pickup.

A City of Toronto utility bill is shown for just over $1,400.
Jeff Wang received this catch-up utility bill charging him for 305 days of water consumption and garbage collection. (Supplied by Jeff Wang)

Between 2010 and 2015, the city rolled out its automated water meter reading program, which saw new meters installed in every home and business in Toronto that send water usage directly to the city for billing. At the time, it estimated it would be replacing 465,000 meters.

The new meters eliminated the need for city staff to enter people’s homes to obtain a reading. But with the transmitters broken, those readings weren’t being sent to the city. 

The city won’t say how much money it has to recoup from missed billing. But if, like Wang, 7,200 residents weren’t charged the average water bill of $1,040 annually for 10 months, the city likely has to collect more than $6 million. That figure doesn’t account for recouping garbage collection.

City staff noticed ‘increase in failures’ this past winter

The City of Toronto’s chief communications officer, Beth Waldman, says the city is committed to working with affected residents to “address their concerns and ensure fair and flexible treatment throughout this process.” 

Waldman says 7,200 customers were “initially impacted” by a water meter transmission unit failure, which resulted in some customers receiving bills this May and June that were higher than usual – reflecting approximately six to eight months of usage. Asked if more customers were ultimately impacted, the city didn’t say.

A water meter is pictured in a basement.
Wang’s water meter is located in his basement. City staff asked him to send a photo of the meter, which provided an actual reading of his usage. Then he was sent a $1,400 bill for 10 months of use. (Laura Pedersen/CBC)

“While it’s common for one or two per cent of water meters and bills to have issues for several reasons annually, City of Toronto staff observed an increase in failures this past winter,” Waldman said in an email. 

“While the water meters themselves are working, it was confirmed the water meter transmission units were failing at a higher rate than usual following further analysis and engagement with the supplier.”

Waldman says the city is working with the vendor to develop a strategy to replace all water meter transmission units across the city, which is expected to begin this year. 

The city won’t say what costs are associated with the replacement, but did say the transmission units are still under an extended warranty. 

Waldman added the issue is happening in many other jurisdictions too.

Affected residents being moved to estimated billing

To minimize the financial impact going forward, those not been billed for more than five months and are part of the city’s standard four-month billing cycle, will receive a bill every three months, charging them for four months’ usage, until their account is up to date, she said. 

Affected residents have been automatically moved to estimated billing, which is based on their previous water use. But, they can submit manual readings if they’d prefer. 

“The city has used estimations in the past and, with few exceptions, estimates are very close to actual usage,” Waldman said. 

Toronto city hall and a large Toronto sign are pictured.
City of Toronto spokesperson Beth Waldman says the city is committed to working with affected residents to ‘address their concerns and ensure fair and flexible treatment throughout this process.’ (Michael Wilson/CBC)

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s Ontario director says the issue brings up broader concerns about the way the city is functioning, especially given a $17-billion budget. 

“The last thing politicians should be doing is asking to raise taxes when clearly they can’t even manage the most basic services in this case,” Jay Goldberg said. 

‘Don’t think the onus should be on homeowners’

Wang says he wasn’t sent a bill until he contacted the city and was asked to provide staff with a photo of his meter, which showed an actual reading of his water usage. 

A few days later, he received the $1,400 bill for water use and garbage pickup for 305 days from August 2023 to June 2024.

He now wonders how long the problem would have gone on if he hadn’t contacted the city. 

“I don’t think the onus should be on the homeowners,” he said. “It would also have been nice to have received proactive communication from the city regarding this issue.”

He says he’s speaking about his experience not to criticize the municipal government, but to bring attention to the issue and because he wants to ensure the city is receiving all the money it’s entitled to. 

“It makes me wonder how many other sources of revenue are being lost by the city,” he said.

The city says residents who have questions about their water meter billing can call 311.

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