Central Maine Power Co. should have “treated its customers as friends and neighbors dealing with difficult and important issues” when it delivered roughly 1,000 threatening winter disconnection notices to customers, the company said in a filing late Tuesday with the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

The company also issued a statement Wednesday vowing to stop sending out the controversial notices to customers who are behind on their payments while it “ensures these communications are consistent with regulatory expectations and the company’s values.”

“CMP should have communicated more clearly and more respectfully with customers about when and how they could be disconnected as a result of nonpayment,” the company wrote in a response mandated by the PUC, which last week voted to open an investigation into the company’s handling of the shutoff notices.

Sending the poorly worded disconnection notices was the latest misstep by the company, which is under fire for its billing practices and faces opposition of its proposed $1 billion transmission line through western Maine to bring hydroelectric power from Canada.

Though CMP struck an apologetic tone Wednesday, it maintained that its winter disconnection notices and related communications “met the technical requirements of the commission’s rules.”

Viewed in the context of CMP’s previous statements defending the notices, its latest response to the PUC highlights the company’s evolving explanation of its practices involving customers with unpaid bills.

But one key point has remained consistent: CMP emphasized that no residential customers have been disconnected in the winter since 2017.

Still, the company on Tuesday acknowledged poor handling of the shutoff notices, which are routinely issued to customers with past-due balances as part of the utility’s collections process.

“Communications with customers must be clear and informative, making sure customers are made aware of their rights, the assistance available and the potential consequences of nonpayment,” the utility said in Tuesday’s filing. “CMP was not sufficiently clear in its communications regarding the company’s right to cycle disconnect service during winter months.”

The term “cycle disconnect” refers to the practice of shutting off power to the homes of customers with unpaid bills during the day and restoring power at night. CMP said it is allowed to conduct cycle disconnections during the winter without PUC approval, but that the notices it sent to customers were not sufficiently clear that it was threatening cycle disconnections, rather than permanent ones.

CMP said 102 customers received hand-delivered “premise visit” packets this winter containing language the PUC had specifically instructed the utility not to use in late 2018. The packets still contained the old language and were delivered in error, CMP said.

The utility said it planned to send a letter on Wednesday to those customers, apologizing for the error and applying $10 to their account “in recognition of the confusion” the notice may have caused.

CMP’s statement comes a day after lawyers representing aggrieved customers announced they were seeking a class-action lawsuit against CMP, citing what they called “deceptive and misleading” winter disconnect notices.

The notices deceived customers into thinking their electric service would be shut off within days if they didn’t pay past-due bills, according to the lawsuit. In fact, state law prohibits power from being disconnected permanently between Nov. 15 and April 15 without PUC approval.

Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins, a state official representing utility customers who has been highly critical of CMP’s disconnection policy and has referred to it as a “scare tactic,” reacted with guarded optimism Wednesday to CMP’s revised take on the shutoff notices issue.

“I hope the CMP response of repentance and taking some responsibility is the new beginning of an attitude change of how to treat their customers,” Hobbins said. “It is never too late, and it is about time.”

SHIFTING STANCE

CMP’s public response to the controversy over shutoff notices has shifted over the past two weeks.

On Jan. 18, the company defended its practices by saying it had been sending out similar disconnection notices for years.

“This communication process toward potential disconnection for failure to pay bills is a process CMP has used for years,” CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett told the Press Herald. “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 a half-dozen 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.

But five days later, CMP President and CEO Doug Herling told the Press Herald he was “disturbed by the tone” of the notices and had set up an internal team to review all correspondences related to disconnection.

Herling stopped short of apologizing to customers who felt they were threatened with having their power shut off during the cold weather, in violation of state law. He also declined to speculate on whether the wording used in the notices was legal, saying he’d let that process play out with state regulators.

CMP UNDER FIRE

The winter disconnection controversy is the latest flashpoint for the embattled utility and its management.

CMP has been under fire for billing practices and other customer service issues for more than two years. A Portland Press Herald investigation concluded last year found that the utility mismanaged the rollout of a new billing system and then sought to downplay its own mistakes.

The company has said a cold snap was to blame for a spike in bills for thousands of ratepayers at about the same time the new system went into effect. The PUC conducted a yearlong investigation into customer allegations of incorrect billing while also weighing a rate increase that CMP is seeking.

The PUC’s staff issued a report on Jan. 10 saying it found no systemic problem with CMP’s metering and billing systems that would have caused erroneous high energy use on customers’ bills.

Instead, the staff agreed with earlier assessments and CMP’s own analysis that the significant bill increases many customers experienced during the winter of 2017–18 resulted from greater use during a record-breaking cold snap, as well as a double-digit increase in the standard-offer supply price in January 2018.

The report’s findings stunned CMP customers who said they have been waiting for the outcome of the PUC investigation to vindicate them, forcing CMP to issue refunds and wipe away past-due charges. The PUC is scheduled to issue its final ruling on the matter Thursday.

CMP also is seeking regulatory approval to construct a 145-mile transmission corridor from Canada to Massachusetts through western Maine, a project that many residents and environmental groups oppose.

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