In a highly unusual move, the Maine Public Utilities Commission wrote an op-ed column, published Sunday, that criticized how Central Maine Power handled the rollout of its new billing system, and promised to hold the utility accountable, even though the regulator has not yet completed its investigation of the billing problems.

Nearly 100,000 customers received bills at least 50 percent higher than for the same period the previous year during the launch of the new system.

CMP, in a statement Saturday, said it can’t comment on the current PUC investigations but has confidence that the process will be handled fairly.

The op-ed column published in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram was signed by all three commissioners: Philip Bartlett, Bruce Williamson and Randall Davis. The opinion piece was directed to customers but also highlighted CMP’s errors, and said the utility’s performance will be considered when the PUC rules on its recent rate increase request.

“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,” the opinion piece reads. “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.”

Experts in utility regulation who follow the PUC closely agreed that it is unusual for the panel to make such a detailed public statement while still investigating a case.

“The fact that the op-ed has a sentence underlined that says ‘We will take action’ sends a message that the PUC normally does not make explicit: Many Mainers have doubts about the willingness or capacity of the PUC to hold CMP’s feet to the fire,” said Steve Ward, former Maine public advocate. “This is not a new perception by members of the public, but it is quite unusual for the PUC to run an advertisement for itself, promising to leave no stone unturned in an upcoming rate case.”

Ward said in his two-decade career as public advocate that he often saw the PUC “on the defensive and bristling over fierce criticisms.”

“But only in private – and never in a newspaper op-ed,” he said. “I guess this is an indication of how much the negative opinion of CMP has grown, due to transmission line opposition, public power proposals and the billing fiasco.”

The PUC has been investigating CMP’s handling of a switchover to a new $56 million billing system more than 18 months ago that resulted in sharply higher bills for thousands of customers. It also is looking into how CMP’s customer service staff handled complaints and questions over those bills.

A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation found that CMP managers rushed to implement the new billing system and skipped critical tests before its launch. As customer complaints poured in – with some receiving monthly invoices for $1,500 – CMP blamed customers, the weather and energy prices. It also misled the public and downplayed the problems to the PUC, the investigation found.

CMP has acknowledged some claims but has remained defiant against others.

“CMP has been and continues to be concerned about our customers. We have heard loud and clear the emotion expressed by the approximately 45 customers who spoke during the public witness hearings over the past week. We are committed to doing what is required of us to restore trust in CMP,” the company said in its statement Saturday. “We also trust that the MPUC will continue to be a fair and indifferent forum for the regulation of ours and other regulated businesses and as it makes its decision in these cases.”

Timothy Schneider, who served a four-year term as Maine’s public advocate from 2013-17, said his view of the PUC has always been that it’s a neutral arbitrator, and that the op-ed looks like a shift away from that. Like Ward, Schneider said he never saw that type of message from the PUC during his time as public advocate.

“This seems to be a departure from the previous commission,” he said.

Ward said the op-ed is likely a sign that the PUC is concerned about its own credibility, too, and “cannot afford to be perceived as the neutral, dispassionate judges that simply call ‘balls and strikes’ in rate cases.”

“Desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say,” he said. “This op-ed is an indication of how dysfunctional CMP has become and that the PUC sees that the current situation requires an emergency response.”

The PUC held two public hearings last week, one in Portland, the other in Farmington, that each featured testimony from ratepayers who saw their bills rise and were discouraged with how CMP handled their complaints. Another meeting is scheduled for Monday night in Hallowell.

Bartlett, who serves as PUC chairman, was appointed in May by Gov. Janet Mills. Previously, he was chairman of the Maine Democratic Party and a four-term state senator. He said last week that CMP’s system doesn’t save original usage data for long, which might leave some questions about bill accuracy unanswered.

Schneider said he doesn’t know the degree to which politics might be playing a role in the PUC’s current action but said the commission never would have submitted an op-ed like this under the previous chairman, Mark Vannoy.

David Littell, who served as a PUC commissioner from 2010-2015 and previously was commissioner of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. John Baldacci, agreed that for the PUC to make a public response about a specific case is unusual. But Littell said he doesn’t think it’s inappropriate at all. He said during his time at the PUC, he was struck by how closed the regulatory agency was to most of the public.

“This op-ed by all three commissioners is entirely appropriate,” he said. “They are saying the PUC is doing its statutory job and carrying out its commitments to the public. What they say is factual and recites their orders and makes it clear the commission will do its job investigating the very real problems encountered by customers.

“The PUC adopting a transparent and public-facing role should be welcomed by every Mainer. I read this as a public statement that the PUC is listening to CMP’s customers and will do its job; it will take time to sort out what exactly went wrong, what consequences should follow and how to make it right.”


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