Retired nurse Rita George is afraid her biggest fear is coming true – that state regulators are about to close the books on their Central Maine Power Co. investigation by letting the utility off with a mild penalty and freeing it up to demand full payment on the $5,000 in unpaid bills CMP says she owes.

George is one of thousands of CMP customers in Maine who say the utility’s new billing system, launched in the fall of 2017, immediately started overcharging them by falsely inflating the amount of power usage reported on their bills. They have been waiting for an investigation by the state’s utilities regulator to vindicate them, forcing CMP to issue refunds and wipe away past-due charges.

Now it looks like that isn’t going to happen.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission staff conducted a yearlong investigation into the matter, and a key report on the findings was released Thursday. To the dismay of George and many other CMP customers, the PUC staff report mostly agreed with CMP’s argument that the utility has been recording customers’ power usage accurately, and that extreme cold weather and other factors were responsible for the unusually high bills.

George has been contesting the amount of her power bills – and refusing to pay them on the advice of state regulators – since shortly after moving into her renovated Shapleigh house in December 2017. She was shocked by the first month’s bill totaling $360 – 41 percent more than what it cost to power her previous house, which was older and five times bigger.

Based on the previous owner’s power usage, George estimates her true bill is $2,340, nowhere near $5,000. She is prepared to settle that up when the PUC’s investigation ends. George, 55, has had to take a full-time job at a nearby Lowe’s to prepare for that. But it won’t be enough if CMP demands all of what it believes that she owes.

“If this (happens), I will be in the dark for a very long time,” George said. “I will be disconnected. I will pay a mortgage, insurance and try to find a way so my pipes don’t freeze. I won’t be able to live here. I will be screwed.”

WILL CUSTOMERS BE ON THE HOOK?

George is not the only Maine ratepayer who doesn’t understand why the PUC staff does not blame the state’s largest utility for the unexplained electricity usage increases and inaccurate bills that have confounded thousands of Mainers over the last three years.

The agency staff report issued Thursday found that the utility’s metering and billing technology contained no systemic flaw and didn’t inflate customer energy usage – a finding that contradicts hundreds of customer accounts.

Instead, the PUC staff agreed with CMP’s own analysis, which found significant bill increases reported by customers during the winter of 2017-18 resulted from higher usage during a record-breaking cold snap, and a double-digit increase in the standard-offer supply price in January 2018.

However, the report concluded CMP mismanaged the rollout of its new billing system, known as “SmartCare,” which contained bugs that resulted in tens of thousands of customers not receiving bills for months, receiving multiple bills in one month, or receiving bills that were inaccurate. It urged a reduction in CMP earnings until it is fixed.

But in a separate report, the staff also called for a rate hike, in part to improve CMP’s much maligned customer service.

The reports have left customers like George reeling. The ramifications of what would happen if the PUC decides to embrace the staff’s findings in rate hike and billing case decisions on Jan. 30 are huge. A customer like George who has deferred any part of a disputed bill would now be on the hook for all of it.

That scares Mandy Spencer and Matt Ouellette, who run a family dairy farm in Skowhegan. They filed a complaint with the PUC last August after CMP shut their power off one month after they had entered into a payment arrangement to settle their disputed bill. The couple’s file had no record of a deal.

Behind the dispute was a rising electricity bill that had nothing to do with use. For example, the monthly CMP bill for a cold, dark storage barn is running them $230 a month. A few years ago, the barn housed a full-fledged dairy with milk tanks, cooling system and a vacuum pump for just $120 a month.

They have endured the hikes but worry about the impact on Maine’s youngest, oldest and the disabled.

“If customers are made to pay all the set-aside amounts immediately, there will be many without power, and for a very long time,” Spencer said Friday. “The staff findings are extremely concerning as they saw and heard so much from residents. How they can overlook all that just blows my mind.”

Jane Liedtke, owner of Bay Leaf Cottages and Bistro in Lincolnville, started getting huge CMP bills two winters ago even after shutting down for season. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

It is all just too much for retired college professor Jane Liedtke, who in 2010 bought 12 seasonal Route 1 cottages and a nine-room motel on Route 1 in Lincolnville with dreams of becoming an innkeeper. High winter electricity bills, when her seasonal business is sealed up, have dashed that dream.

Liedtke complained to the PUC and CMP about the high winter bills – a $250 bill for a dark, empty office one month, an $800 bill for an empty caretaker house another – back in May 2018, but the high bills and high usage continued last winter and this one, even though the buildings are buttoned up tight.

“I just can’t put more energy into CMP,” Liedtke said Friday. “The entire thing, no matter how you look at it, is not consumer-focused. Bills are still high, unexplained, with the property closed for the season. I have just decided to sell it.”

Lisa MacLeod pauses in her cheese room while making yogurt at Tourmailine Hill Farm in Greenwood in June. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

While Liedtke is planning to sell to escape CMP, others don’t have that option, even if they wanted to do so. Greenwood goat farmer Lisa MacLeod and her husband, Dan, owe CMP more than $10,000 in old bills deferred pending the outcome of the PUC investigation. She worries CMP will try to take the farm.

They stopped paying about three years ago after getting a $500 monthly bill. That was twice as much as they’d ever paid before based on usage that had allegedly jumped from 1,600 kilowatt-hours a month up to 3,000. When she complained to CMP, the utility promised her it would look into it.

A few months later, CMP called back with demands and threats. Pay up, agree to an onerous repayment plan or face disconnection. The MacLeods refused, and Lisa would become one of the first to join a class action lawsuit filed by CMP ratepayers against the utility.

CMP has shut off power to her outdoor dairy freezers, but the MacLeods have no plans to leave the farm.

Roger Bergeron decided to pay what he believes to be inflated bills on his Pittston home, even though he is only there on weekends, because he didn’t want to take the chance that a deferred payment would hurt his credit. He could afford to do that, but he knows many Mainers can’t.

Roger Bergeron at his home in Pittston in June. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

He was upset about the findings of the PUC staff report – he doesn’t use electric heat, so he isn’t buying CMP’s cold weather excuse as the reason his electricity bills have skyrocketed – but said that he wasn’t going to give up, even if the full commission were to take the staff recommendations to heart.

And he is willing to take CMP to court to get a rational explanation for his wildly swinging usage rates.

“I don’t accept their findings,” Bergeron said. “Maybe the supply rate increase can explain a higher bill, but if rates doubled, how does that explain why my usage has tripled? And don’t tell me winter weather because I heat with propane, not electricity. For me, this is getting personal. I want answers.”

Laurie Colbath-Libby of Brownfield is perplexed by the PUC staff ‘s findings. She noted that irrational bills and usage trends have not been limited to Maine’s cold snaps, so weather alone cannot be responsible. She thinks there is a lot more going on than the PUC or CMP is saying.

Her monthly bills have increased $250 to $600 a month from $120 to $150 a month since a weeklong outage following the windstorm of 2017. That is also when CMP rolled out its new billing system. “The people of Maine are screwed,” Colbath-Libby told fellow ratepayers following release of the staff reports.

Eben Breton, a 37-year-old self-employed carpenter from Oxford, doesn’t believe the PUC staff’s findings either. He questions staff ties to CMP. “I believe the PUC is in their pocket, unfortunately.” His monthly electric bill is more than double what it was three years ago, which he finds ridiculous.

He built his 1,200-square-foot home, so he knows it inside and out. All new appliances, a new artesian well pump, a new pump for his outdoor wood boiler. That should have brought his monthly electricity bill down. “But no,” Breton said, pointing to years’ worth of escalating electricity bills.

“For (CMP) to demand payment is absurd,” Breton said Friday. “They are bullying us. … It just stinks. I work hard only to have my money taken, because if I don’t have power, you know, that only takes away from my children.”

ADDITIONAL TESTING

A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation concluded in early 2019 found that CMP skirted best practices, failed to adequately test its error-prone billing system and misled the public by downplaying the scope of the problem in comments to the PUC, stock analysts, the news media and customers.

The PUC staff recommended Thursday that CMP conduct, at its own cost, additional testing of SmartCare to fix remaining problems, establish an independent process to investigate and resolve customer complaints about high usage that have not been resolved, and submit a comprehensive plan for managing the ongoing maintenance of the SmartCare system.

As a penalty for poor management, the PUC staff recommended imposing the equivalent of a $4.9 million reduction to CMP’s earnings every year until the company meets certain benchmarks for service quality for at least 12 consecutive months.

But the impact of that penalty is complicated and confusing because of recommendations in the separate but parallel case involving CMP’s rates that also were released Thursday.

In that case, the staff has recommended actions that would result in an 8.1 percent increase in energy distribution rates for customers, effective March 1. The extra money would go toward customer service improvements and reliability upgrades to CMP’s power distribution system to reduce storm-related outages.

The proposed rate hike would increase the average residential monthly bill of $86 by 2.45 percent, or roughly $2.11.


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