Friday, November 2, 2007

The evil monster that is the 407 ETR. - Toronto And GTA - Sue Kojic needs a car for her care worker job. But a $10 407 ETR bill that ballooned to $1,200 may cost her both
For going to the homes of the elderly and the infirm -- to bathe them, feed them, and even change their soiled diapers if needed -- Sue Kojic doesn't make a pile of money as a personal support care worker.

After 18 years with the same company, on-and-off, she has a pay slip showing she makes $14.25 a hour.

Since client numbers vary week-to-week, her last bi-weekly pay cheque -- she called "one of the best ones lately" -- amounted to $755.91.

She gets the equivalent of 15-minutes' pay for each client she visits as a payment towards gas. There is no car allowance, even though a car is necessary and mandatory, and there is no rate per kilometre.

Just 15 minutes pay per visit. On her last cheque, it amounted to $11.26.

It doesn't buy a lot of gas.

"Let's face it," she says. "I'm barely getting by. But getting by is better than being on welfare. I was on welfare once, years ago, and I never want to go back to that."

Of all the columns written over the years, few receive more visceral reactions than those involving the 407 ETR toll road, particularly when it comes to harassment over non-payment, and the often heavy-handed tactics employed by the collection agency contracted by 407 ETR management.

No matter what story is written about the 407 ETR's modus operandi and/or its strong-armed bill collectors, someone swears to have a topper.


Because Sue Kojic will be 40 in December, a ministry of transportation envelope arrived in her mail the other day to reminder that the licence sticker for her car -- the fee being $74 for one year -- had to be renewed.

But it would be renewed only if she also paid the $1,234.01, which was allegedly outstanding to the 407 ETR.

Sue Kojic says she received only one bill from the 407 ETR, and that was for $10.78, way back in November 2000.

That's seven years ago.

"And I think I paid it," she says. "But it was also the year I was in a car accident in Niagara Falls. So maybe it didn't get paid?

"But it was only $10. How did it become more than $1,200?"

Back in 2005, after a five-year moratorium, an Ontario divisional court ruled in favour of the 407 ETR privately-owned consortium, making it mandatory again that the ministry of transportation not renew licence stickers to the approximate 10,500 vehicles that had reportedly rolled up $9 million in unpaid tolls.
The consortium, which bought the road for $3.1 billion in 1999, voluntarily stopped requesting plate denials in 2000 amid an avalanche of complaints involving billing errors.

Until the court's ruling, the government has refused to reinstate the practice of plate denial, all which led to the 407 ETR to renew its hunt for shirkers of historical accounts.

Like Sue Kojic's, for example -- now almost seven years historic. And with seven years of late fees, administration fees, and compound interest rates adding to the problem.

After posting a $3.4 million loss in 2005, the toll road operator announced in February that it had managed to score a net profit of $9 million in the fourth quarter of 2006, with revenue rising to $118 million from $105.7 million, a nice turnaround.
This is not unusual. If the 407 ETR has an Achille's heel, this is it. Its tracking system, judging from stories documented in the past, is sorely lacking precision.

Nonetheless, Sue Kojic decided to attempt compromise, and laid out her case as someone who could use a break, and as someone who drastically needs a car in order to visit her needy clients.

"If I cannot get to them, I have no work," she said.

"I was on social assistance in the 1990s and have worked very hard to upgrade my skills and stay off welfare," she continued in her letter. "The shocking amount of money that is shown to be owed to the 407 ETR is beyond my ability to pay. And I cannot understand the justification that would allow a $10.78 invoice to rise to an amount over $1,200."

And then she begged for a bit of mercy.
Since Sue Kojic's scenario is hardly a one-off, the 407 ETR decided to offer a payment plan to delinquent customers who would suffer "exceptional hardship" through the denial of their vehicle licence plate, and posts the applicable form online.

But they must qualify under the 407 ETR's rules. They must owe more than $1,000. They must have no alternative vehicle. And they must prove that the loss of that vehicle would be "immediate, significant and lasting."

But that is not all.

The customer must also "show" that the denial or the licence plate would "be a threat to the health and safety to a person ordinarily transported in the vehicle," and/or that the customer would suffer the aforementioned "exceptional hardship" if the plate was denied.

Only then will the 407 ETR render a decision.

But if, and only if, the customer agrees to the continuance of interest charges on the arrears, to not ring up additional 407 ETR bills, and to agree to a lien on the customer's assets, such as the pinks to the car.

There is one more caveat.

The 407 ETR charges a $30 administration fee to file for leniency.

If those who take that route win the tug-of-heartstrings war, their account will be credited with the $30. If they lose, however, it will not.

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