A group hired to investigate complaints about significant increases in the winter bills of many Central Maine Power Co. customers will expand its probe to examine how well the company responded to those complaints.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday authorized Liberty Consulting Group, the Pennsylvania company hired to investigate CMP, to expand its audit to include the company’s customer service and communications in addition to the billing and metering issues raised after tens of thousands of customers saw their monthly bills increase significantly.

The commission is currently conducting its own investigation of CMP’s metering, billing and customer service performance, in tandem with the Liberty audit.

Liberty staff has “considerable expertise” with customer service and the company says it can broaden the audit without affecting its work schedule, said PUC Chairman Mark Vannoy.

“It is reasonable at this time to expand the scope of the management audit to include the customer service portion,” he said.

Auditors will examine whether CMP adequately responded to customer calls within a reasonable time frame and how it reacted to customer complaints about high bills.

‘NO STONE IS LEFT UNTURNED’

Expanding the audit will add $31,220 to Liberty’s contract cost, for a total of $401,040, said Harry Lanphear, the PUC’s administrative director. The company was hired in May after a public bidding process.

Central Maine Power, rather than ratepayers, may be required to pay for the audit. Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Monday to override Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill that would in part allow the commission to fairly allocate the audit cost between ratepayers and shareholders of a private utility if the audit finds the utility at fault.

Draft reports from Liberty and commission staff are expected in early October, Lanphear said.

If the independent audit concludes that CMP failed to provide safe, reliable service, the company could be forced to repay customers and the commission could issue a penalty or direct the company to correct service problems.

Commissioner Randall Davis said at Tuesday’s meeting that expanding Liberty’s audit will align it with the commission’s investigation.

“Matching the Liberty Consulting Group audit scope to the summary investigation scope will ensure no stone is left unturned, which will improve the quality of the overall result with minimal inefficiency and rework,” he said.

ACTION AT CMP

Questions about CMP’s metering and billing systems arose over the winter, when customers complained about unreasonably high power bills, some of which were triple or quadruple the norm. In April, CMP reported that 97,000 individual accounts saw bills increase 50 percent or more in December, January and February. The company serves more than 600,000 customers in southern and central Maine. It is a subsidiary of Iberdrola, a multinational utility company headquartered in Spain.

In a written statement, CMP spokeswoman Gail Rice said the company would provide Liberty with whatever information it needs.

“We know that our customers look to us for reassurance when they have questions, and we have not delivered consistently on these expectations,” Rice said. “We have already taken some steps to improve our performance and provide the level of service our customers expect.”

Those steps include reorganizing the customer service department, recruiting and training more people to handle customer questions, and enhanced training for customer service staff. Adding more staff should reduce hold times for people who call the company, Rice said.

‘WE ARE NOT ALL CRAZY’

CMP has acknowledged that new billing software introduced last October created issues for some customers. But the company attributed the spike in power bills to an 18 percent increase in the standard-offer electricity cost, along with higher electricity consumption during an extreme cold snap in December and January.

Jane Liedtke, a CMP customer in Lincolnville, doesn’t buy that explanation.

She said she didn’t vary her electricity use during the cold snap, but saw her kilowatt usage triple compared with the year before. Tenants in a house she rents got a $1,000 power bill for January, compared with the normal $275.

“That has nothing to do with the weather, at least not in my case,” Liedtke said, adding that CMP’s “dismissive” attitude toward complaints makes the situation worse.

“We are talking thousands of people this happened to. We are not all crazy,” she said.

Liedtke is glad regulators expanded the scope of the third-party audit.

“If they can get more independent, objective checking on it, I think that would make a whole lot of sense,” she said.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire