An eight-month independent audit of Central Maine Power’s billing and metering systems offered hope that ongoing anger and confusion about high electric bills for tens of thousands of customers finally would be cleared up.

That didn’t happen.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission released a long-awaited report just before Christmas that concluded last winter’s cold spell was largely responsible for soaring bills. But that finding is being rejected by a customer advocacy group, which is asking state regulators to continue their investigation and hold a public hearing.

The request, from CMP Ratepayers Unite, will heighten conflict on Tuesday, when the PUC commissioners meet to consider the audit findings and what to do next.

About 97,000 CMP customers saw their bills increase last year by 50 percent or more in three winter months when compared with the same period a year earlier. And while the audit focused on what happened in the past, the PUC continues to hear from customers who are reporting new problems.

More than 30 new public comments were filed on the PUC’s case docket in the first three days of the new year.

“We live in a two-bedroom apartment with no washer or dryer,” wrote Tessica Merrill of Naples. “Monitor heat that runs on kerosene. Our hot water is on landlord’s account. Our recent bill was $400. CMP needs to be held accountable and responsible to have the issues resolved and fixed. That is clearly not happening. Something is definitely not right with these bills!”

Some asked the PUC to keep looking into the matter.

“Please continue your investigation into CMP,” wrote Letitia Chapman of Madison. “My bill for three months in the summer was double usage.”

Late last week, the Office of Public Advocate weighed in to say that so many unanswered questions remain, the PUC should use the report as part of a follow-up investigation.

The commissioners could decide to fold the audit analysis into a current CMP rate case, for instance, or open a formal investigation into the specific findings, according to Harry Lanphear, the PUC’s spokesman.

In the meantime, Lanphear said the PUC is encouraging customers to pay all undisputed portions of their bills.

CMP is continuing to review billing disputes on a case-by-case basis, according to Catharine Hartnett, CMP’s spokeswoman. If a customer also contacts the PUC’s consumer assistance division to challenge a bill amount, CMP won’t try to collect that specific sum, she said, but it will seek payment on the remaining balance.

Hartnett said CMP representatives can use smart-meter data to walk customers through hourly energy usage, to help pinpoint the cause of higher-than-expected bills. This process sometimes uncovers unanticipated issues, such as broken well pumps that keep running or new heat pumps that may cut overall energy costs but boost electric bills.

But Lauren Loomis, a representative of CMP Ratepayers Unite, said that while some group members were outraged at the findings of the report, most were more confused and frustrated.

“The audit did find metering anomalies and billing defects, but left us with more questions than answers,” she said. “Many members have double to triple bills in every month. Some in clusters, but each in every season. If the spikes were due to the cold weather and an 18-percent rate increase, it doesn’t explain the other similar high bills.”

Loomis said the group will post a notice on its Facebook page letting people know they can attend – but not participate in – Tuesday’s PUC deliberations, set for 10 a.m. at the agency’s office in Hallowell.

CMP TRYING TO MOVE ON

A PUC report released Dec. 20 detailed the findings of Liberty Consulting Group, which concluded that skyrocketing electricity bills last winter cannot be blamed on CMP’s new billing and metering system, but the company made the situation worse with its poor response to a flood of customer complaints.

The audit identified “significant gaps” in the rollout of new billing software, noting that lapses in testing and training personnel resulted in errors that affected more than 100,000 accounts. But overall, the company’s meter system accurately records and bills customers, auditors said.

High bills last winter were the result of extreme cold and an 18-percent increase in the standard-offer electric supply rate, not systemic problems, the report concluded. But the problem was made worse by inadequate staff and management experience, leading to long delays responding to and resolving customer complaints, starting with the rollout of a new billing system in October 2017 and lingering through last summer.

CMP President Doug Herling admitted the company made mistakes, but said he hoped the Liberty report gave customers confidence that its billing and metering systems work.

“More than anything, CMP failed to deliver the level of service that our customers expect and deserve when we introduced the SmartCare billing system,” Herling said.

The company has hired more staff, unveiled a new website and created a customer service guarantee offering a $10 credit for each late bill in response to the problems it experienced, he said.

CMP now is attempting to move on from the controversy. It took out a full-page newspaper ad in the Portland Press Herald on Dec. 23, to highlight the audit findings that bills are accurate and the company is taking steps to improve customer service.

The company also announced that it’s adding an explanation to customer bills this month, to alert people to why the energy supply portion of their bill will be higher this year.

In December, the PUC chose the best bid it had received for supplying electricity to customers who don’t contract with a power supplier, called the standard offer. That default rate kicked in Jan. 1, and is 13.7 percent higher than the current standard offer. It will on average add $6 a month to a home power bill.

The hike will bring power supply rates to their highest level since 2009. The increases reflect a regional trend, driven largely by the rising cost of natural gas used in power generation.

OTHER QUESTIONS

CMP continues to suffer from customer confusion over this trend and its impact on the standard offer.

Under Maine’s 19-year-old electricity restructuring law, utilities only distribute power. They don’t generate and sell it. But because the supply cost is collected as part of the CMP bill, many people blame the company for the increases.

Hartnett said the company recognizes that people new to Maine or moving into their first homes might not understand the difference, even though it is detailed on the monthly bills.

“Our first move was to put information in the January bills and we are actively discussing other means to educate customers about the difference in rates,” she said. “In many ways, helping people understand how their energy is generated can lead to them better understanding and engaging in energy policy issues as well.”

The ongoing controversy over the audit and its findings will take place in parallel with other questions over CMP bills.

In July, more than 600 customers who believe they have been overcharged on their electricity bills sued the company and are seeking class action status.

In addition to the 97,000 customers who saw bills spike last winter, the lawsuit contends that another 200,000 customers have been overcharged by up to 50 percent.

Sumner Lipman, an attorney in the case, said it will likely take several months for the judge to act on the class action designation. Meanwhile, Lipman said he’s hearing from customers who didn’t receive bills for months and then abruptly got disconnect notices from CMP. He said he’s gathering information aimed at possibly expanding the existing lawsuit to include improper disconnections.

On a separate track, the PUC is investigating whether CMP is overcharging its customers. That probe comes in response to a complaint filed by over a dozen CMP customers last May. The complaint accuses CMP of charging rates that exceed the state limit for the utility’s return on equity.

 


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