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With Ontarians already worried about rising energy prices, billing errors are adding to the angst. And they are also creating a headache for Hydro One, as the publicly owned transmission company seeks to increase the number of customers it directly serves.KIBAE PARK/The Globe and Mail

A rapidly rising number of complaints about shoddy billing practices and poor customer service at Hydro One has prompted a major review of the Crown corporation.

While the ombudsman's investigation is expected to focus on accusations the agency overcharged hundreds of people – in at least one case by tens of millions of dollars – it will also probe how and why customers have trouble getting problems fixed after bringing them to Hydro's attention.

The transmission company is only the latest Ontario electrical organization to come under fire, after an audit that revealed generous pensions and big bonuses at Ontario Power Generation late last year.

"With Hydro One, it takes two, three, four calls, a couple of weeks, and then we don't get straightforward answers. We get the runaround," Ombudsman André Marin said at Queen's Park Tuesday. "It's like wrestling with a slippery pig."

The agency responded that many of its delays dealing with customer complaints are the result of switching to a new billing system last May. The changeover entailed setting up an entirely new computer platform, and Hydro One is still working out the bugs, said Laura Cooke, vice-president of corporation relations.

"The glitches that we expected to be able to resolve in a timely manner are taking much longer to resolve from a technology standpoint," she said. "As a result, it's taken longer for us to manage or resolve certain customer complaints."

Some customers charge that Hydro One sends them an "estimated" total on their bill, but won't explain how the estimates are arrived at, Mr. Marin said. In some situations, smart meters fail to give accurate readings because of interference from trees and hills. In other cases, he said, the utility stops billing a customer for a long period of time, then suddenly withdraws thousands of dollars from their bank account in one go.

In one extreme situation, which The Globe and Mail first revealed last month, Hydro mistakenly charged Beaver Valley Ski Club for $36-million.

For Raymond and Judy Muldoon, retirees who live in the countryside near Sydenham, Ont., the trouble started innocuously enough. Last May, they noticed Hydro One was charging them $20.87 for a sentinel light, a device they did not actually have. They told Hydro One about it. E-mails show it took the entire summer – and several reminders – for the utility to remove the charge from their bills. And nine months after their initial complaint, Mr. Muldoon said, they are still waiting to be reimbursed.

"I'm thinking: 'Come on, guys, you can do better than this,' " he said in an interview.

In an open letter to customers Tuesday, Hydro One President Carmine Marcello promised to co-operate with Mr. Marin's investigation and use his suggestions to "do better." He said only a small percentage of the agency's 1.3 million customers have had problems.

Even before the problems of the past year, Hydro was a steady source of complaints. New Democratic Leader Andrea Horwath urged Mr. Marin in 2010 to look into the agency.

"This is a problem that, four years later, is obviously still occurring," she said.

"All members of our caucus have received complaints of the unfair treatment people are experiencing in this province. This is not an isolated issue," Energy Critic Lisa MacLeod said in a statement.

For now, Mr. Marin said, his investigation will remain narrowly focused on billing and customer-service problems, and will be completed in nine months. But he said he might revisit other issues at the agency in future.

"If need be, we'll do a second Hydro investigation," he said. "There's a tremendous amount of grief over hydro rates, compensation, pensions, this kind of thing. But one step at a time."

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