A customer group that has been fighting Central Maine Power’s billing practices went to court Monday to charge that the utility is sending misleading notices that threaten to disconnect power this winter without required permission from the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

In a case filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, five customers associated with the group, CMP Ratepayers Unite, said the utility is using communications “strategically designed to mislead and intimidate customers with alleged overdue balances,” to pay their bills without involvement of the PUC. It’s seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the practice.

In a news release Monday, the group says it has been “inundated” with phone calls by customers who say they are being told they will be disconnected and are scared they will lose power over the holiday season.

 

By law, utilities are able to pursue customers who owe money, but their conduct is strictly governed by PUC rules. Most important, power can’t be disconnected to homes during the heating season, from Nov. 15 to April 15, except in unusual circumstances and only with PUC approval.

CMP said Monday that the allegations are inaccurate, and that the utility recently collaborated with the PUC and the state Public Advocate’s Office to make sure wording in disconnection notices complies with state regulations.

CMP provided to the Portland Press Herald copies of two notices, from September and October, that clearly include references to PUC involvement. The September notice lays out payment options and arrangements and offers ways to help pay the bill.

It also contains this sentence: “With permission from the Maine Public Utilities Commission, your service could be disconnected on 12/29/20, or within 20 business days of that date.”

The company said it hasn’t disconnected a home for nonpayment during the winter in three years, and that it only does so with PUC permission and after multiple attempts to confirm the dwelling is vacant.

“We continue to urge customers to call as we may be able to connect them with assistance programs, many of which are only available to customers who demonstrate they are at risk of disconnection,” said Catharine Hartnett, a CMP spokeswoman. “No residential disconnections can be made until April 15 without permission from the PUC. We encourage customers to call us to manage their accounts prior to April 15.”

Notably, key disconnection notices presented as exhibits in the court complaint are from January 2020 and don’t reflect changes ordered by the PUC later in the year.

WINDOW OF UNCERTAINTY

The dispute follows action in September by the PUC, when it voted to end a pandemic-inspired emergency ban on disconnections as of Nov. 1.

That meant Mainers who had fallen behind on their utility bills because of pandemic-related layoffs and other economic hardships had to start making payment arrangements this fall, or risk having their service cut off eventually.

But residential customers of natural gas companies and electric distribution utilities such as CMP and Versant Power were thrown a lifeline. The PUC ruled that the moratorium would transition into the annual winter disconnection period, which essentially prohibited those providers from shutting off service from Nov. 15 to April 15.

At the time, the Public Advocate’s Office expressed the view that some customers would be confused by the timing. It noted a window of uncertainty between the end of the moratorium and the start of the period in which winter disconnections are banned.

“That said, since the order was issued, I have received zero phone calls from electric or natural gas customers regarding disconnections,” said Kiera Reardon, the office’s consumer adviser.

The PUC also reported that its consumer division hadn’t received any customer complaints this fall regarding disconnection notice wording.

All utilities are required to give 30 days’ notice to affected customers prior to any disconnection activity. They must make “significant attempts,” according to the PUC, to personally contact customers who are behind on their bills and negotiate a reasonable payment arrangement.

“We encourage customers who are in danger of disconnection to engage with their utility first to try to work out an arrangement,” said Susan Faloon, the agency’s spokeswoman. “In situations where the utility cannot make contact or is not able to negotiate a reasonable payment arrangement with a customer, the (PUC’s consumer division) will ensure that the customer is provided with a reasonable payment arrangement.”

PLAINTIFFS CITE CONFUSION

During a news conference following Monday’s filing, lawyers for the ratepayer group highlighted the situation of Sarah Levine, an Auburn mother who said she received a $1,600 bill in October, the first bill since last March or so. It contained a disconnection notice, which she said she assumed had been cleared with the PUC.

Levine was asked why she made that assumption. She referred to the note about PUC permission, and said she interpreted it as a “threat.” Asked if she had reached out to CMP about setting up a payment plan, Levine said she hadn’t because she doesn’t trust the company. Instead, she called the ratepayer group.

Sumner Lipman, a lawyer involved with the case, said the ratepayer group has received 15 calls from customers worried about losing their power.

“The purpose of this whole thing is to collect money during Thanksgiving week, when it hurts the most,” he said.

Monday’s action is the latest legal gambit by the customer advocacy group.

It went to federal court in September in a bid to file a class-action lawsuit against the utility, in a dispute over what it says are inaccurate electric bills. Three of the five plaintiffs in the case filed Monday in state court also are involved in the class-action attempt.

CMP argued the federal case should be dismissed because a framework to dispute bills already exists at the PUC. The judge has yet to issue a ruling.

The class-action bid is a legacy of CMP’s billing problems that began in 2017 and were resolved by state regulators in January, when the PUC voted to penalize CMP by cutting its earnings by nearly $10 million over 18 months, citing the company’s longstanding customer service failings and mismanagement of its new metering and billing system.

The $9.9 million earnings reduction was the largest single financial penalty ordered for a utility and its shareholders by the PUC in recent history.


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