A former Okotoks business owner is sharing her experience with staggering utility bills.

Spurred on after seeing local media coverage of Hub Town Brewing’s struggles with rising utility costs, Michelle Traxel shared images of a February utility bill from Little Fast + Fresh.

Michelle and her husband Jarod made the decision to close their restaurant back in January and closed their doors on February 11.

The Traxels proceeded to sell off some equipment from the business and get the space tidied up, and by February 20, the space was empty.

Michelle shared an image of a utility bill from February 25-28, during which she says no gas appliances or other electronics were even being kept on the premises, and only a security light was left on.

They were charged $597.29, and by Michelle’s calculation, that’s after $400 in credit from the previous bill was removed from the total.

She says the choice to close the restaurant was made partially due to a health condition, and partially because of these growing utility bills, which were only set to get worse.

“When we made the decision to close, we decided as of January that we couldn’t continue to go on. At that point in time, we were a 400 per cent increase from when we opened our doors. I assumed that in the next couple of months, we were going to start to see a 600-800 per cent increase, especially with the listing cap and deferral removal as of April 1. We needed to get out of there ASAP.”

They were anticipating five-figure utility bills by May of this year, but after receiving this three-day bill, Michelle thinks that could’ve happened sooner.

“On that bill, there’s maybe about $40 of actual usage of utility and the rest is all fees. Let’s say it was $60 dollars of usage, you’re saying we have $940 of extra charges? How is that logical? As a business owner, I wasn’t allowed to say ‘Here’s your $12 but I’m going to charge you an extra $180 to consume that sandwich. It’s just out to lunch.”

When they would try to get to the bottom of these skyrocketing fees by contacting their utility company, Michelle says the answers they got seemed arbitrary and nonsensical.

“In that three-day bill, we got a $91 carbon levy in that bill, so they’re trying to say that in that chunk of time, we’ve somehow used 1.4 tonnes of greenhouse gases. It doesn’t make sense, there’s no logic, there’s no nothing. They would claim ‘You’re in a really rural community, that’s why it’s so expensive for us to get you utilities.’ When I would counter and say ‘We’re seven minutes away from a million-person metropolis and we’re next to a road that sees 30,000 cars a day,’ they’d say ‘Oh, well maybe you’re just a really high-volume user.’ They’d change the whole narrative, there was no logic.”

The Traxels looked for another explanation like someone having been stealing power or a fault in the building’s construction, but after bringing in an electrician, a gas fitter, and an engineer, they couldn’t identify any unusual factor that would drive up their bills this much.

They’ve also asked other local businesses if they’ve been dealing with similarly increasing bills, and they’ve heard a lot of similar stories to their own.

Just as other businesses have been struggling with increasing charges, others are also struggling to find answers.

“We’ve gotten really similar answers to what Lisa from Hub Town was experiencing, and that’s basically no answer. Everybody is passing the buck, everybody was blaming each other, all branches of government were blaming somebody else. No one was actually taking accountability or explaining why in the last few years has it gone up so much so quickly. What is going on?”

Michelle adds that fixed and variable rates both seem to be affected, with businesses reporting being charged more per unit, whereas Little Fash + Fresh’s extra expenses are mostly from distribution.

She says it’s something that’s blindsiding small business owners and leaving them worried to open their bills each month.

“When you open a business, you expect increases. Costs increase over time, inflation exists, we’re all aware of it. But we’re not talking about a 15 per cent increase, we’re talking about 400, 600, 800 per cent increases in what’s supposed to be a steady cost. The answer and the solutions we were provided was ‘just pass it onto your customers,’ and at the end of the day, you can’t just keep passing this on.”

When Little Fast + Fresh closed, the Traxels stressed that it wasn’t due to lack of support, and Michelle recalls that they were consistently busy, which speaks to the burden these bills are having.

“This is such a financial burden that’s being dumped on these small businesses that’s unsolvable. This is a degree of cost that you can’t just make up somewhere else. This is the thing that is shutting down businesses. We’ve already seen it and I think we’re going to continue to see it, especially considering these bills were happening before these caps were removed, before the referrals were removed. It’s going to get worse.”

For the Traxels, what left them feeling helpless was the lack of support, with representatives from varying levels of government consistently pointing to someone else.

“The thing that infuriates me is there is no advocacy, there is no one standing up for us at the House or in Edmonton saying, ‘what the heck is going on.’ and demanding answers and accountability. It feels like we’re becoming this joke in the sense of ‘you should work harder,’ or one party blaming the other, or a company saying, ‘That’s just the cost of doing business.’ It doesn’t feel like anybody's listening. That’s what makes it so incredibly frustrating. I think if it’s one place you can say ‘Oh that sucks,’ but we’re talking about 15-25 places that have all come forward and said, ‘We’re all experiencing the exact same thing.’ How many more is it going to take before somebody actually does something about it?”