When a Central Maine Power electricity bill lands on your kitchen table every month, what’s inside should be accurate and not come as a surprise – or much more, as a shock.

And yet, during the first two public hearings held by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, we have heard compelling testimony from many Mainers that their electric bills send a shock through their household budgets. Most Mainers are penny pinchers. They plan as best they can for anticipated costs, and like most of us, they dread the unexpected cost of any emergency.

When an inaccurate monthly utility bill hits a family budget with unexpected and unaffordable costs, it becomes an emergency. This experience by many CMP customers has raised concerns for all three MPUC Commissioners.

We’re determined to answer the questions about the reliability of the meters and the accuracy of metered information as it flows through CMP’s billing system, fully aware of the impact unanticipated costs have on Maine household and business budgets. We will complete audits and investigations of CMP billing and customer care, we will hear final presentations about CMP’s proposed rate increase and how it will be implemented, and we will receive findings from the Office of the Public Advocate and others – and the MPUC will take action.

While reaching final regulatory decisions takes time and moves at a decidedly judicial pace, our Consumer Assistance Division has been in action every day fielding phone calls, emails and inquiries from thousands of CMP customers. In fact, it was our staff in the Customer Assistance Division that alerted us to potential problems with CMP meters and bills. When they responded to a spike in complaints from CMP customers and heard a collective chorus of “my bill can’t possibly be this much,” the MPUC responded by launching an investigation and audit.

An independent auditor, Liberty Consulting, reported, “Significant gaps in SmartCare (the CMP billing system) testing and training… produced unnecessarily large numbers of errors requiring lengthy manual correction before bill issuance…. A shortage of personnel contributed to the inability to eliminate errors… [and] continuing shortages of experienced personnel unduly delayed fixes…, caused significant customer difficulty in reaching CMP representatives and in getting answers to questions and concerns,… and overly long delays in resolving billing problems.”

As we work through our investigation, questions continue to nag. That’s why the MPUC approved further analysis of additional CMP bills by the Office of the Public Advocate. And our Customer Assistance Division continues to work with customers and CMP to resolve billing errors.

Designing and deploying SmartCare, CMP’s new billing system, cost CMP $56 million. It’s clear that SmartCare did not deliver results anyone would expect from such a significant investment. At the same time, ongoing shortages of customer service representatives at CMP compounded billing problems and errors and, as we have been hearing at our public witness hearings, has pushed customer frustration to the breaking point.

Delivering quality customer service, assuring the accuracy of bills and living up to the expectations of customers requires a real investment of money, time, management and training. Every company or organization known for exceptional customer service makes an investment and commitment to achieve high marks.

That’s why the MPUC must and is considering CMP’s customer performance as part of the rate decision. In fact, based on CMP’s poor customer service, the MPUC staff has proposed a $4 million to $6 million annual reduction to CMP’s earnings.  By determining new rates, or by maintaining current rates, or even by reducing rates of return for CMP, the MPUC will address any service deficiencies.

The big question we all have about our CMP bill and CMP’s customer service is also the simplest and plainest: Are we getting what we pay for? That’s the question thousands of Maine families are asking around their kitchen tables. You can be certain that the MPUC will take actions including any required remedies, in order to ensure that CMP delivers trustworthy, affordable, safe and reliable delivery of electricity to Maine households. The MPUC will set essential standards of performance for utility service and management, and we expect Maine utilities to meet those standards.

 

 

 


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