Maine’s public advocate is criticizing Central Maine Power for recent shutoff notices it sent to customers with past-due bills, saying the action amounts to intimidation because the utility can’t shut off power during the winter without permission.

Speaking of CMP’s recent shutoff notices, Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins said “the process is a poor business practice and should not be tolerated.” Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The utility counters that it is allowed to send the notices, and has done so for years, even though it must receive approval from the Public Utilities Commission before it can actually shut off a customer’s power at any time from November to April.

Even so, Public Advocate Barry Hobbins, who represents the interests of Maine’s utility customers, maintains that sending letters and emails topped with “Urgent – Disconnection Notification” in ominous red type with a specific date for scheduled disconnection in the middle of Maine’s cold-weather months is inappropriate.

“It’s a scare tactic, it’s wrong and it’s another example of how CMP misleads ratepayers,” Hobbins said. “It might not be a crime, but no one can argue that the process is a poor business practice and should not be tolerated.”

The commission will consider opening an investigation into whether CMP has issued inaccurate or misleading winter shutoff notices on Tuesday, when it meets to discuss its pending investigation of the utility’s billing and metering systems and its rate hike request.

Some customers who got the disconnect notices accused the utility of intimidation, arguing that people are more likely to drop their efforts to fight bills they believe are too high to avoid being shut off during the cold winter months. That helps CMP make its case in the pending billing and metering case, they say.

Kara Hodgdon of Sanford got a disconnection notice on Christmas Eve that warned her that she would be disconnected on Jan. 2 if she did not pay $498.47. She is on a plan to repay an overage that has now topped $4,400, but said the extra $364 a month on top of her regular $200 to $400 a bill is too much.

“We can’t afford it,” said Hodgdon, who tried to dispute her bill but was told that the disparity in usage was not high enough to warrant a delinquency deferral. “I keep paying the minimum to keep the power on, but not sure how much longer it will work.”

On Friday, CMP officials took great pains to point out the difference between a disconnection, which isn’t allowed in the winter without commission approval, and a winter disconnection notice. Nothing prohibits CMP from sending out such a notice and the utility has been doing it for years.

“This communication process toward potential disconnection for failure to pay bills is a process CMP has used for years,” said Catharine Hartnett, a company spokeswoman. “There is nothing new in how we work with customers to encourage them to pay their bills.”

When an account is overdue, Hartnett said the utility will take progressive steps to reach customers to encourage payment and discuss assistance plans: note the overage on monthly bills, send overdue notices, make two phone calls and a property visit, and, if all else fails, send a disconnect notice.

“The disconnection notices go to those customers who do not contact us and have not made any attempt at a portion of the payment,” she said. “(It) is not at all related to the special temporary process put in place during the metering and billing investigation. This is our standard process – again, used for years.”

CMP hasn’t shut off a delinquent residential account over the last two winters, Hartnett said.

The commission’s administrative director, Harry Lanphear, confirmed this. He said state law prohibits disconnecting customers from November through April without PUC approval, but it does not prohibit winter disconnect notices, which are regarded as the last step in the collection process of overdue bills.

However, there are two kinds of disconnection notices that customers are receiving, Lanphear noted.

One warns delinquent customers their electric service is scheduled for disconnection “unless they take action,” and another that says “if you fail to contact us, we can disconnect your electric service during the winter months without the approval of the Maine Public Utilities Commission.”

The first is being mailed to delinquent residential customers, and makes no mention of the commission approval requirement. The latter is being delivered to properties that CMP suspects are vacant. CMP doesn’t need commission OK for a winter shutoff at a vacant building, Lanphear said.

But Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, objects to both kinds of disconnect notices, and calls them a crime. It was Berry, the head of the Legislature’s energy, utilities, and technology committee, who filed a letter about the complaint with the commission on Wednesday.

“They are different, but not that different,” Berry said. “One is saying they can disconnect without PUC permission, and the other is providing a disconnection date they know perfectly well is false. It requires permission they don’t have and they know they won’t get. … They’re just making it up to intimidate.”

It is a state crime for a utility to lie to state regulators, Berry said. Since the Public Utilities Commission derives its power from ratepayers, lying to customers in a disconnection notice is the same thing as a lie to regulators, and should be treated as such, Berry said.

 

 

 

 

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