A protracted battle over the intent and wording of disconnection notices issued by Central Maine Power Co. is flaring up again at the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

Lawyers representing a group of CMP customers have filed a complaint requesting that a moratorium on residential shutoff notices be reinstated, and that all disconnections or threats of disconnection for electric, gas, phone and water utilities be suspended until after April 15. The action comes two months after the PUC relaxed an emergency ban on shutoff warnings that it issued at the start of the coronavirus pandemic last spring.

The complaint filed on Dec. 21 argues that the pandemic and its financial impacts have gotten worse, and that sending shutoff notices to electric customers is an unreasonable practice in the current situation.

The request has gained the support of the Maine Office of Public Advocate, which also notes the increasing intensity of the pandemic. The office, which represents the interests of utility customers, also takes issue with the wording of CMP’s disconnection warning notices. It said an apparent requirement that customers pay their bills in full during a specific time may discourage some residents from contacting the company.

Last September, the PUC phased out its emergency ban as of Nov. 1 and signaled that Mainers who have fallen behind on their utility bills during the pandemic would have to start making payment arrangements or risk having their service cut off.

Ending the moratorium in November, the commission said, would help customers limit the money they’ll owe, as their debt will grow without repayment arrangements. It also could reduce the likelihood that utilities will seek higher rates in the future to recover the cost of lost revenue and added collection activities. That would push bad debt expenses onto all ratepayers.

But as a practical matter this winter, most residential customers of natural gas companies and electric distribution utilities such as CMP and Versant Power are protected. No winter shutoffs have occurred in Maine for at least the past two years. By law, service can’t be shut off from Nov. 15 to April 15 without the PUC’s permission.

CMP emphasized that point in its response to the complaint. Despite statements and fears to the contrary, it said, no home customers can be disconnected during the winter without express permission from the PUC. That happens only rarely, CMP noted, such as if a customer rejects making a payment arrangement approved by the PUC. The company is calling for the case to be dismissed.

Critics of CMP and its billing practices have been wrangling over disconnection notices for months, before the PUC and in court.

In December, a judge dismissed most claims against CMP in a lawsuit over disconnection notices.

A customer group that has been fighting CMP’s billing practices sued over the notices, which it says are misleading and fraudulent. In that case, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, five customers associated with the consumer advocacy group CMP Ratepayers Unite said the utility was using communications “strategically designed to mislead and intimidate customers with alleged overdue balances” to pay their bills without involvement of the PUC. The plaintiffs asked the court to block that practice with a temporary restraining order.

The judge denied the request. She said none of the customers was being pressured to pay money they didn’t owe, based on the notices.

In the current case before the PUC, customers and the Public Advocate also take issue with the wording of notices, highlighting what the Public Advocate says is inadequate communication in a company email about where customers can get help paying bills.

CMP said in its response to the complaint that it is complying with all PUC rules. The company has explained in the past that the shutoff notices are a normal part of the collections process for utilities, and that their objective is to get customers with unpaid bills to initiate a dialogue with the utility about payment options.

On Tuesday, CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said the language to which the plaintiffs are objecting was not contained in shutoff notices, but in email communications sent to customers to notify them that a shutoff notice had been issued.

“It is to inform the customers for whom we have an email address on file that they have a notice and advises them to log into their online accounts to view the details,” Hartnett said.

Since the moratorium was lifted on Nov. 1, CMP has issued about 66,000 shutoff notices to roughly 32,000 customers, she said, noting that the discrepancy in the figures is caused by duplicate notices. No shutoffs have occurred since the moratorium was lifted, Hartnett said.

“We estimate that about 5 percent of our roughly 640,000 customers have received a notice informing them that their balances are overdue,” she said.

No date has been set for the PUC to deliberate the case.


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