The Maine Public Utilities Commission decided on Tuesday to open an investigation into whether Central Maine Power Co. has violated rules surrounding disconnection notices in the 1,000 warnings the utility has issued to customers this winter.

Nicole Hunt of Westbrook wrote to the PUC to complain about this notice she received in November. Courtesy of Nicole Hunt

The commissioners voted 3-0 to open the probe and said CMP has until Jan. 28 to explain its practices and show cause why it shouldn’t be subject to financial penalties that could be as high as $500,000.

At issue is whether the utility ignored a warning the commission issued last winter reminding CMP to make it clear to customers with past-due bills that the company needs PUC approval before it can shut off their power during the winter. CMP said it has hand-delivered roughly 1,000 disconnection notices to customers since November.

According to PUC Commissioner Phil Bartlett, the commission warned CMP last winter about the apparent language violation in the notices, and CMP agreed to comply.

“Despite this assurance, it appears the company may still be using notices that contain this statement,” Bartlett said during deliberations before the PUC vote.

Following the deliberations, CMP said it would fully cooperate and provide information regarding its practices for issuing winter disconnection notices.

“Based on recently expressed public comment and media coverage,” CMP said, “the company feels there is clearly an opportunity to improve public understanding of the law, as well as the goal of the company to have customers communicate with us if they are challenged in paying bills.”

In response to Press Herald inquires, CMP also disclosed that it had written off $3.4 million in unpaid bills in 2018, and nearly $7.7 million in 2019. Bad debt and collection costs ultimately end up being calculated into rates and are paid for by all customers.

In terms of actual disconnections, CMP shut off power to 47,230 residential customers in 2016, and 41,554 customers in 2017. The number fell to 23,099 customers in 2019. There were only 263 disconnections in 2018, because the company was focused on fixing its new billing system. CMP said it has not disconnected power to any residential customer during the winter for at least two years.

Tuesday’s action follows complaints about CMP’s practices during what’s known as the “winter disconnect” period in Maine. That’s when natural gas and electric utilities are prohibited from cutting home service, even if a customer is unable or unwilling to pay what is owed by the bill’s due date. The period runs from Nov. 15 to April 15.

There seems to be confusion, however, about what utilities are allowed to do during that time, as well as the responsibilities of customers.

Last week, Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins criticized CMP for recent shutoff notices it sent to customers with past-due bills, calling the action a “scare tactic,” because the utility can’t shut off power during the winter without permission.

CMP replied that it is allowed to issue the notices and has done so for years. Still, it must receive PUC approval before it can actually shut off a customer’s power at any time during the winter disconnect period.

But that distinction is hard to recognize in the notices sent to some customers.

On Monday, Nicole Hunt of Westbrook wrote to the PUC to complain about the notice she received in November.

“Not only have I received much higher bills for the last two years, about doubled, when nothing has changed in my house,” Hunt wrote. “I recently received a disconnection notice in the end of November, after the date which prevents CMP to do any disconnects.”

Hunt attached her disconnect notice. It’s headlined in red letters: “Urgent – Disconnection notification.”

The notice goes on to say: “Please pay the overdue amount of $241.66 to prevent disconnection.”

After providing a contact number to call to make payment arrangements, the notice adds: “Unless you take action, your electric service is scheduled for disconnection on 12/09/19 or within 20 days of that date.” Nowhere does the notice mention that disconnection is subject to PUC approval.

Contacted Tuesday, Hunt said she ended up paying her bill on time. She had contacted the PUC, but was unable to connect with a staff member because of her work schedule.

“I always at least pay $100 a month on my bill and usually more,” she said. “So getting this disconnection notice really frustrated me. Then to now see all over the news they can’t be actually doing that …”

Whether CMP is in fact violating state utility law remains to be determined. But the expressions of concern by the three commissioners Tuesday left little doubt that the burden of proof is now on CMP, a development welcomed by Hobbins.

“This is a turning point for Maine ratepayers,” he said. “It’s the first good news in two years.”

Hobbins said he got the impression from listening to the commissioners that they were displeased.

“They warned CMP twice last winter,” he said, “and the company just ignored it.”

The issue of winter disconnection notices has gotten attention just as the PUC is preparing to rule Jan. 30 on a landmark case involving CMP’s billing and metering system.

Earlier this month, the PUC’s staff offered its opinion that CMP mismanaged the system’s rollout, but that there were no systemic problems with the system that would have been responsible for thousands of complaints over high energy use and related bills. The PUC staff report also recommended an earnings reduction for CMP – and an even larger rate increase for customers – that translated to a net increase of 8 percent to fund customer service and grid reliability improvements.

Many customers, as well as the public advocate, denounced the report’s findings and strongly opposed any rate hike. In this highly charged atmosphere, CMP’s winter disconnection practices have emerged as another point of contention leveled against the company and the way it does business.

The charges and counter-charges led the PUC commissioners last week to add the disconnection notice issue to Tuesday’s agenda, which also included a decision about CMP’s rate design, which is the framework utilities and regulators use to help set the prices consumers pay for power.

In that matter, the commissioners decided now wasn’t the right time to alter rate design. They want to wait until the billing issues are finally resolved, for one thing.

In recent days, CMP Ratepayers Unite, the Facebook group formed to fight high bills, has been urging its members to write to the PUC to oppose any rate hike and to highlight problems with their bills, including disconnect notices. Since the first of the year, nearly 40 customers have filed written complaints.

Last week, CMP officials clarified the difference between a disconnection, which isn’t allowed in the winter without PUC approval, and a winter disconnection notice.

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

Hartnett said that when an account is overdue, the utility takes progressive steps to reach customers to encourage payment and discuss assistance plans: It notes the overage on monthly bills, sends overdue notices, makes two phone calls and a property visit, and, if all else fails, sends a disconnect notice.

CMP hasn’t shut off a delinquent residential account over the past two winters, Hartnett said, a fact confirmed by the PUC.

To further complicate the issue, there are two types of disconnect notices.

One warns delinquent customers that their electric service is scheduled for disconnection “unless you take action.” That’s the one that Hunt received.

Another notice 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 the commission’s OK for a winter shutoff at a vacant building, according to the PUC.

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