Solo dad left without power and $6500 in debt after bills were sent to wrong address

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Duane Tawhai, out of options for having the power turned back on.
Duane Tawhai, out of options for having the power turned back on.

Duane Tawhai does not subscribe to the claim that the Far North is winterless.

He was close to tears last week when he told the Northland Age that he was struggling to cope, almost four months to the day since Contact Energy cut off the electricity.

Mr Tawhai has lived at his rented Ahipara address at 150 Takahe St for four years.

Throughout that time Contact had been billing 148, an address that did not exist. With his debt having reached $6500, the company pulled the plug on May 3.

That left Mr Tawhai, who has the care of three children, aged six, seven and eight - his 14-year-old son moved into Kaitaia last week to live with his mother - cooking with gas, hand-washing clothes and boiling water for baths.

And trying to keep warm.

Mid-morning Friday the house was very cold. He was wearing two jerseys but still feeling the chill. The house did not have a fireplace - even if it did it was not fire-permitted.

The problem, Mr Tawhai said, began and ended with Contact using the wrong billing address.

He had tried to have it rectified in August last year, when his debt stood at $1200, but had been unsuccessful.

He had had numerous meetings with Work and Income, He Korowai Trust, MP Kelvin Davis and the Citizens' Advice Bureau, but none of them had been able to help. (Mr Davis said yesterday that his office had no record of any approach by Mr Tawhai, but was trying to contact him yesterday).

Work and Income had said it was unable to help him pay the debt, he said, because the billing address was 'fraudulent'.

He understood that if WINZ did help it would be through a loan that would have to be repaid, and he accepted that.

He was raising three children on $199 a week, which he spent on food, he said, but if the power was restored he would find a way to pay the bill. The debt, however, was totally beyond his means.

"I'm really struggling here, but it's (Contact's) cock-up," he said.

"At least we should have hot water for the kids."

The children were staying with an uncle who had electricity over the weekends, but he had care of them during the week.

His landlord didn't offer much hope either. He lived in Australia, and had just repaired the roof, after 18 months of being asked to attend to a problem that had rendered one of the home's two bedrooms unusable.

Nor was there any point in looking for somewhere else to live. The fact that he owed an electricity company $6500 would follow him, he said, for the rest of his life, as would the accusation that he had supplied a fraudulent address.

An aunt had tried to have the account switched to her name, but Contact had refused to allow that.

A last resort

Contact Head of communications Shaun Jones said Contact appreciated the difficulty of Mr Tawhai's situation.

"We have been in contact with him a number of times over the past few years in relation to his account, and while it appears there was some initial confusion relating to the address, we had worked with Mr Tawhai to clarify and resolve this matter," he said.

"Our approach is to work with customers who are having difficulty paying their energy bill, looking at options such as payment arrangements and whether any assistance is available from social agencies. Disconnecting customers for non-payment is a last resort."

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