Seeking to restore consumer confidence and move past its lingering billing system controversy, Central Maine Power is launching a plan that includes a $6 million compensation fund for home customers who have unresolved bill disputes.

The proposal also includes a unique partnership with Efficiency Maine to troubleshoot high-use complaints and newly created management and technical-support positions focused on customer service and billing.

CMP’s layered plan is its most comprehensive response to a controversy that has led to unrelenting criticism from customers and policy makers, and has the potential to threaten corporate earnings. A pending class-action lawsuit and intense media coverage, including a June report in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram that chronicled the company’s mismanagement of the billing system development and highlighted the financial and emotional impact on customers, has put pressure on the company to take broader action.

For one thing, the bad news is overshadowing debate on the merits of a nearly 11 percent rate hike request currently before the Public Utilities Commission. On Tuesday, the PUC voted to accept a motion from the Office of Public Advocate to delay any rate decision until investigations into billing, metering and customer service problems wrap up, set for late December.

CMP filed a request late Wednesday at the PUC asking the agency to administer a $6 million Customer Benefit Fund, paid in monthly, $500,000 contributions and taken from the profits of Avangrid, CMP’s domestic parent company. CMP is asking the PUC to play a lead role in determining how to compensate residential customers, such as those who did not receive bills for months and then were hit with a huge bill and balance owed, or people who received inexplicably high bills that were caused by defects in the billing software. If resources permit, the program might be extended to small businesses.

Significantly, CMP is asking that the PUC approve the $6 million customer fund in lieu of a financial penalty proposed by the agency’s staff this year. In a recommendation to the commission, the staff said CMP’s revenue requirement should be reduced by $20 million and its return on equity cut by $4.8 million, because of the company’s customer service performance during the past several years.

In Wednesday’s filing, CMP also proposed four new service quality metrics – specific targets in areas such as the percentage of billing errors and time taken to answer calls. The company asks that the fund be terminated if the company hits the targets for 12 consecutive months. If it fails to achieve these goals, it will contribute $125,000 a month to the fund after the initial 12 months, until it does reach the goals.

The proposals outlined by CMP mirror similar ideas first floated last month by the company in an attempt to reach a settlement with the Public Advocate and other parties to the rate case. That effort didn’t gain traction. Instead, it appears to have been resurrected through a data request in the case, asking CMP to propose alternative ways of addressing its customer service deficiencies.

PLAN DETAILS

Despite efforts by CMP and the PUC’s consumer division, a frustrated minority of customers continue to question the accuracy of their bills 20 months after CMP introduced a new billing system. It will be up to the PUC to decide which of them may be eligible for consideration in the compensation fund, CMP said.

To head off future disagreements, CMP also will participate in a novel energy audit pilot program with Efficiency Maine, the state’s quasi-public trust that oversees energy efficiency spending. In instances where CMP or the PUC’s consumer division can’t get to the bottom of why electric use is inexplicably high, experts selected by Efficiency Maine can review the case, and take steps that could include an in-home visit to test appliances and audit energy use. The agency will then create a written report for the customer and for CMP. If the pilot proves successful, CMP will incorporate it into its standard practices.

CMP hopes Efficiency Maine can get the program up and running in September or October. The cost of the program is unknown. CMP expects Efficiency Maine to issue a request for proposals.

CMP also is adding a dedicated, nine-person IT business support team to troubleshoot future problems with its billing software. They will be complemented by a new, Maine-based manager in charge of billing and collection, and a newly created position, vice president for customer service.

“We recognize the need for a dedicated focus in Maine, to rebuild confidence of consumers,” said Linda Ball, the new vice president.

Ball has most recently been overseeing smart meter operations for Avangrid, but has more than 20 years of experience in customer service at CMP.  She said the challenges faced by the company since the troubled  launch of the SmartCare billing system in October 2017 have given her a clearer sense of what customer service representatives need to better handle questions.

ATTEMPTS NOT ENOUGH

Mary Johnston of Woolwich said she plans to apply for compensation from the fund if she qualifies.

Johnston’s bill has doubled in the past two years, she said, despite hiring an electrician, a plumber and even appliance repair people to check her house to look for reasons why her electric use has doubled. A check of her meter by CMP didn’t find any problems, Johnston said.

A typical winter month’s bill had been $150, she said, but it doubled after CMP changed its billing software.

The bill has remained high, she said, even though she got a divorce and doesn’t stay in the house during the half of the week when her children are with their father.

She unplugs everything in her house when not in use, except for the refrigerator, she said, so there’s no reason she can think of for the jump in her bills. When she contacted CMP for help, Johnston said, she was told they couldn’t compare bills because past bills had been in her husband’s name, not her’s.

“I would think something like this would be so closely monitored and regulated that this would never happen,” she said.

Another customer, Roger Bergeron of Pittston, said he’s looking for stability in his bills from CMP, rather than some payout over the high bills.

He had just moved into a new house and his monthly bills were about $75 for the first two months. Then, after CMP changed its billing system, his bills doubled, at least – one was $284, despite using propane for his heat and hot water – he said.

Bergeron protested to CMP to no avail and since then has been “paying the bill, with no resolve” over the sudden jump.

He and most customers, Bergeron believes, aren’t looking for a payout and would gladly settle for an agreement to freeze bills at a set level and a method for resolving the disputes.

“I’m not looking for a dollar figure, just fix my meter,” he said. “People don’t need a one-time payment of whatever the dollar amount is.”

A $6 million fund is a start, Bergeron said, “but $6 million to a company that’s worth billions is nothing.”

Two other critics of CMP had mixed views of the plan as presented to the PUC.

Barry Hobbins, the Public Advocate, called it a good first step, but said it falls short by ignoring mismanagement that contributed to problems in the first place.

“I believe it’s the first block in a foundation to get back the confidence they’ve lost,” he said. “But it doesn’t address the overall issues.”

The spokeswoman for a citizen group formed to fight the high bills said the company needs to find the root cause of the problems to regain customer trust.

“To me, it sounds like they’re compensating customers to get them to shut up and move on,” said Lauren Loomis of CMP Ratepayer’s Unite. “We’re still not getting answers on individual bills.”

NEW ASSISTANCE

CMP has struggled to staunch a cascade of complaints involving higher-than-expected electric bills from customers since the billing system change over. Although company leadership has apologized for customer service shortcomings, CMP continues to insist that most of the high-use complaints stem from winter weather and an increase in energy supply rates, not any systemic, technical deficiencies with SmartCare. That view is in dispute, and the Public Advocate currently is conducting a random test of meters attached to some recent, high-use accounts. Results are expected this month.

Michael Stoddard of Efficiency Maine Submitted photo

But going forward, Efficiency Maine could act as an independent analyst to provide information in high-usage disputes. Michael Stoddard, the agency’s executive director, said his legislative mandate is to help Maine residents manage their energy use and save money through efficiency. Ferreting out perplexing reasons for high electric use is part of that.

“When CMP approached us to work with specific customers with high usage they can’t explain,” Stoddard said, “we said, ‘That’s what we do.”’

Stoddard said the program would start small, probably by outsourcing home visits to energy services contractors selected by the agency. They might visit a house to conduct an inventory of appliances and heating equipment, noting age and electric load. With the customer’s help, they could search for hard-to-notice consumption, such as well pumps running excessively or heat tape left on to guard against frozen pipes or ice dams.

These visits could pick up where an existing, over-the-phone process performed by CMP customer service reps ends. They do a deep dive into the power and time-of-use information recorded by smart meters, which also is available to customers online through the Energy Manager portal.

Over time, Stoddard said, this checklist might reveal energy use patterns that other customers have in common. That in turn would give the PUC’s consumer division and CMP’s customer service reps new suggestions for customers calling with complaints.

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.

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