More than 50 Central Maine Power Co. customers embroiled in billing disagreements with the utility have received notices threatening to disconnect their power in the coming weeks unless they contact the utility to deal with past-due balances, a ratepayers advocacy group says.

By law, CMP cannot shut off any customer’s power between Nov. 15 and April 15 without permission from the Maine Public Utilities Commission because of health and safety concerns during cold-weather months. The utility did not shut off any customers during that period last winter and has not requested any so far this year, the PUC’s top administrator said.

PUC Executive Director Harry Lanphear said issuing the shutoff notices is a state-mandated part of CMP’s process for attempting to collect on unpaid bills. The goal is to coerce customers with unpaid balances into negotiating payment plans, and not to actually shut off their power, he said.

Still, the advocacy group CMP Ratepayers Unite said the volume of cold-weather shutoff notices being issued is a slap in the face to CMP customers caught up in an ongoing dispute over whether the company repeatedly overcharged thousands of Mainers and then misled the public about it following CMP’s mismanaged rollout of a new billing system in 2017.

CMP customer Amy Carsley of Scarborough said that she sacrificed payments on other bills to keep up with her skyrocketing CMP bills, which in November 2017 began to double and triple from what she would typically expect them to be.

Carsley said she paid and paid, expecting a state investigation into the billing issue to uncover errors on the part of CMP, with refunds being issued to customers if they received inaccurate bills. Not only has that not happened, she said, but when she has called CMP to discuss her bills, its customer service representatives haven’t even acknowledge that the company may be at fault.

So sometime last summer, Carsley got angry and started slacking off on paying her CMP bills, figuring she had already paid more than what she owed.

“I’d taken from other bills for months to pay their crap,” Carsley said.

In late October, the company sent her a notice saying she needed to contact CMP or her power would be shut off on Nov. 18. She said a follow-up call with a CMP customer service rep Carsley described as prickly and snide resulted in her getting a one-month extension before he hung up on her.

“I’ll do whatever I need to, because obviously I don’t want to lose power,” Carsley said. “But at the same time, I don’t want to give these people any more money.”

WATCHING CMP CAREFULLY

Lanphear advised CMP customers who believe their bills were incorrectly inflated to at least pay what they believe they would normally owe each month while the investigation into the billing dispute continues. If they are in arrears with the utility over previously unpaid bills, they need to try to negotiate a manageable payment plan, he said.

If those efforts to work out a payment plan with CMP have reached an impasse, customers should call the PUC’s consumer assistance division at 800-452-4699, Lanphear said. The worst thing customers can do is ignore the utility’s calls and letters, he said.

“We are watching CMP very carefully,” Lanphear said. “Whether it’s CMP or Emera (Maine) or any utility, our staff is vigilant to make sure they follow the rules, especially during the winter season, and if they don’t follow the rules we will address it immediately.”

Many customers who have received recent shutoff notices either had not received CMP bills in months, or they disputed the amount of their past-due balances or the terms of the repayment plans presented to them by CMP, said Judith Hyde, administrator for CMP Ratepayers Unite. She said many CMP customers are terrified the PUC will sanction potentially dangerous cold-weather shutoffs despite the widespread billing controversy.

“Some people, the PUC or CMP, told them not to pay until all this was over. It’s been two years, so then they have a high (past-due) bill, and they can’t afford that, especially in the winter,” Hyde said. “They’re going to freeze to death. It’s going to be below freezing – it’s winter.”

Lanphear said the PUC has never advised CMP customers involved in billing disputes not to pay their bills. He said it has advised customers to continue paying what they would consider a reasonable monthly amount if they believe their bills were erroneously inflated.

MULTIPLE STEPS

CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett acknowledged that the company has continued to issue shutoff notices despite the approach of winter, but she indicated that the affected customers all were given ample opportunity to work out payment plans. She said CMP has followed state law meticulously in its efforts to collect past-due bills.

“Customers are making claims about their interactions with us … and we can’t tell you what we said to them,” Hartnett said. “It is an important point. We’re not able to release customers’ details about transactions, conversations and accounts, so you’re getting what they said. We can’t tell you our side.”

Linda Ball, the utility’s vice president of customer service, said CMP follows a multistep collections process that gives customers several opportunities to come to the table before it sends disconnection notices. Those steps include sending letters, making multiple phone calls and hand-delivering a packet of information to the customer’s home.

The utility did not disconnect anyone’s power last winter and it likely won’t this winter, but Ball said the unresolved billing problem – and the threat of disconnection – will still be there when spring rolls around if the customer ignores CMP’s correspondence.

“Just saying, ‘It’s not my bill,’ and then not talking to us to determine what the undisputed portion is, will not stop a disconnection,” she said. “They’ve got to get in touch with us. We need people to talk to us and follow the process that the PUC put in place.”

Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins, who represents ratepayers’ interests before the PUC, said the strong negative reactions to the shutoff notices are a product of the tension and lack of trust that have built up between CMP and its customers since the billing disputes began in 2017.

Hobbins said he has noticed an improvement in CMP’s willingness to be more accountable and responsive to customer needs over the past two years. Still, he said the utility will need to do more than simply follow the law to regain customers’ trust.

“I think there’s a lot of blame to go around,” Hobbins said. “If they’re going to regain the trust of Maine ratepayers, they’re going to have to look to see what issues can be addressed.”

Clarification: An earlier news alert about this story misstated the action taken by state regulators. CMP has issued notices of disconnection, which do not require Public Utilities Commission approval.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.