St. Stephen – At the beginning of the year, Shane VanTassel’s wife left him.
“That put me behind on my bills,” he said. “There used to be two incomes, but now it’s down to one.”
VanTassel lives in St. Stephen, in a house he has been renting to own for the last six years. “In four more years it’ll be mine.”
He’s sitting on his living room couch, illuminated only by the sunlight coming in through the transparent curtains. Sitting there, you can hear the faint hum of the generator running behind the house – providing power to his fridge and washing machine.
“I run it for around four to six hours a day,” he tells me.
VanTassel works two jobs in St. Stephen, amounting to around 55 hours a week. He’s 38-years-old, and prides himself on his independence. “I don’t use that much electricity,” he said. “My lights aren’t on in the daytime, because there’s a giant fireball in the sky that does that for me.”
When he first started getting behind on his power bill, VanTassel says he called NB Power to make a payment arrangement. He told them that he could give them $200 every two weeks when he was paid.
According to VanTassel, NB Power agreed to this arrangement. “I was still behind,” he said, “but I was making the payments.”
“I didn’t think much of it,” he added, “Until I came home from work at lunch to change for my afternoon job and the NB Power fella was in my yard. Then everything went dark.”
This happened on June 3. VanTassel’s power has been shut-off for nearly four months now. He said he got the notice his power would be shut-off about 20 minutes after the NB Power worker left. That day, he went to work, and on his break called the utility.
They told him he owed $1749, and in order to get his power turned back on he would have to clear that debt.
“I said that with 1700 bucks, I can go buy a $500 generator and I’ll be fine for the summer.” The NB Power representative told him to go right ahead and do that.
“So I did,” he says. “But unfortunately, that takes gas to run, which eats-up quite a bit of my money.”
In the calculus of the moment, this arrangement seemed to make sense. VanTassel owed $1750 to NB Power, but he could run his generator for the summer which would give him some time to deal with that bill before the winter came around and he needed heating.
But his bill kept going up. VanTassel believes his equalized billing payments have been added to his debt, despite his power being shut-off. Those payments were around $300 a month, and his overdue bill is now around $3000.
NB Power’s no-disconnect policy runs from November 1 to March 31, but for those who are working and are still unable to keep up with high energy bills, there is little recourse if your power has been disconnected in the summer months. NB Power is not required to hook customers back up when the cold months come around.
At his wits end, VanTassel went to Social Development to see if they could help. After a week of talking with NB Power, the utility remains inflexible. “I managed to pre-qualify for the home heating supplement,” he said, but NB Power still won’t reconnect him unless he can come up with $2500 – the amount he would owe after the $550 from the heating supplement was applied.
Without power, VanTassel will have a hard winter. His generator isn’t capable of running a heater, and without heat the pipes in his house will freeze and burst. Soon he will have to shut off the water main to avoid this – leaving him without heat or water during the coldest months of the year.