CAMDEN — Almost two years since the beginning of Central Maine Power’s billing fiasco – which continues to this day, as many CMP customers attested during this summer’s hearings before the Public Utilities Commission – the commission’s staff issued a report this week affirming CMP’s assertion that the new SmartCare billing system is perfectly fine and all of the wildly inflated bills can be explained by cold weather. It’s not clear how this explains the ridiculous bills people received during the summer, or the bills that showed usage spikes in unoccupied homes. Does the PUC staff think folks are just making this stuff up?

I attended one of those PUC hearings this summer to share my own experience with CMP’s unbelievable bills. Again and again I heard heartbreaking stories from seniors on fixed incomes or other vulnerable people who suddenly had to cough up hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of dollars that many of them didn’t have in order to pay erroneous bills. When they called CMP to ask if there might be some mistake, they were typically told that they must be using more power because of the cold, or an old appliance, or some other reason. These beleaguered customers were by turn afraid, angry, confused and feeling quite helpless in their predicament. They pleaded with the commissioners to do something.

That the Public Utilities Commission staff could sit through those hearings and hear story after story detailing the gut-wrenching stress and difficulty so many Mainers experienced, and then simply repeat CMP’s ludicrous explanations and denials, is truly disheartening. As Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins said Wednesday, the day after the PUC report was released, “There is no cold weather now. And people are still having problems.” He should know – his office has documented reams of complaints.

Why is it that the Public Utilities Commission so often has CMP’s back? Their job isn’t to accommodate the utility companies – their job, according to state law, is “to ensure safe, reasonable and adequate service, to assist in minimizing the cost of energy available to the State’s consumers and to ensure that the rates of public utilities subject to rate regulation are just and reasonable to customers and public utilities” (Title 35A, Part 1, Chapter 1, Section 101). As I told the commissioners during my testimony, they’re the only thing protecting vulnerable citizens from being taken advantage of by a corporation like CMP operating without competition. For so many Mainers, there’s no choice: If you want power, you do business with CMP. If CMP – through incompetence, apparently deliberate malfeasance or both – fleeces their customers, only the PUC can step in and stop the abuse.

This situation with CMP’s billing and and the PUC’s response highlights two important facts. First, it shows that Central Maine Power cannot be trusted to hold the privileged position it now enjoys as a protected monopoly with a guaranteed profit. That position is not a given right, it is a privilege that’s granted contingent upon delivering reliable, quality service and dealing honestly with customers. CMP has repeatedly abused that privilege and continues to abuse it even when confronted with abundant evidence of widespread problems. Since CMP is not upholding its end of the bargain, it may well be time to revoke the privilege that the utility has been granted. In fact, it may be time to move to a consumer-owned utility, such as Kennebunk Light & Power. There are many such utilities throughout the United States, and they typically provide better service at lower cost.

The second thing this situation highlights is the need for the Maine Public Utilities Commission to start taking its role as the consumer’s protector more seriously. This should be their primary mission – to have our backs, not the utility company’s. Apparently this is going to require a serious culture shift at the PUC, and now is the time for that shift to begin.

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