You can’t fight City Hall

I received my January city utility bill and discovered an error in the bill: they had billed me for four weeks of garbage/blue box services even though two weeks during the billing cycle, neither service was provided to me.

I received my January city utility bill and discovered an error in the bill: they had billed me for four weeks of garbage/blue box services even though two weeks during the billing cycle, neither service was provided to me.

The current winter conditions and sketchy snow removal plan meant the contractors for these two services were unable to fulfil their obligation to pick up garbage and old newspapers in my area.

Fair enough, I thought. I will notify the people at Red Deer City Hall about the oversight on my bill, so I emailed them via their Questions section on my bill. On Monday, Feb. 3, I figured out the difference of around $8.40 to my bill, when I factored in the two weeks when services were not provided, and informed the city about my plan to deduct this amount from my January utility payment. No response was provided to my email, so I sent another one on Tuesday, complete with a forward of my Monday email.

I received no response from either email, so I phoned the city on Wednesday to inform them I was not going to pay for two weeks of non-service on my utility bill. This was the precise moment when things got more complicated because a utility bill is not under one City Hall umbrella when customers have an issue with a bill.

The woman on the other end explained my issue with the bill was not solvable by anyone in her department, even though she was in the billing department for the particular city utility services that I was disputing. It was a classic not-my-department manoeuvre on what appeared to be a bill from the City of Red Deer Utilities Department.

She transferred me to another department, Environmental Services, where I told my concern to another person, who promptly transferred me back to the Utilities Department mere seconds after I told her I had an issue with my utility bill.

I told the same story to another person, got transferred back to Environmental Services and eventually I was shuffled back to Utilities, where I found out I was the problem.

It turns out I told the Environmental people I had a problem with my utility bill and I should have told them I had a problem with my garbage/blue box service, so I received a polite but patronizing lecture about my foolish assumption that everything written on a city utility bill would be handled by the Utility Department billing staff.

Sure I may have been crazed and delusional when I believed City Hall operated like any other business, where everything on a bill is relevant to the services provided by a business. Foolish, foolish me.

It turned out I needed to have an audience with a woman in Waste Management, so I asked for her number and was told I was not allowed to have that information. What was I thinking? Apparently a senior public servant with a number withheld from the public is standard operating procedure in today’s City Hall. Instead, the polite young woman on the phone from the wrong city department told me she would forward my two ignored emails along with my concerns to the woman whose phone number was unavailable to me.

She assured me I had a real chance I would hear from the decision-maker by Friday at the latest. Friday came and went, so I can assume I was not a winner in the City Hall lottery system where I would have won an audience with the decision-maker.

Imagine if you went to a local restaurant, ordered an item off its menu and were told the item was unavailable because the delivery truck was unable to deliver the product due to bad snow clearing on the city roads. Imagine how happy you would be when the bill came and they charged you for the missing item, twice on the same bill. To me, the same principle applies to my utility bill and I wish I could tell my story to the people who sent me a full bill without full service.

My biggest complaint about City Hall is its multiple layers of management and overlapping departments that appear to be designed to confuse, as well as discourage, the public from pursuing any issues with the system.

I am very hard-pressed to believe City Hall needs to be so difficult, expensive and ultimately inefficient as the current bait and switch system.

Sadly, I doubt whether we will ever see a change in the system as long as only a quarter of the voters bother to vote in municipal elections.

I would suggest anybody else who was billed for garbage/blue box services not rendered contact Environmental Services for clarification on their city utility bill.

In the real world, they owe all of us an explanation and rebate.

Jim Sutherland is a local freelance writer.

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