The Maine Public Utilities Commission denied a request Tuesday to reinstate a ban that would have kept Central Maine Power from sending disconnection notices to its customers.

In a unanimous decision, the three-member commission ruled that CMP didn’t violate any laws or rules related to issuing such notices, and that there’s no basis for investigating the complaint against CMP.

In September, the PUC phased out its emergency ban on utilities sending shutoff warnings to residential customers with past-due bills 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.

But in late December, lawyers representing a group of CMP customers filed a complaint requesting that the 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 complaint argued 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.

Under state law, essential utility services such as electricity can’t be shut off from Nov. 15 to April 15 without the PUC’s permission. CMP noted that it hasn’t made any requests to shut off a customer’s power since the moratorium was lifted. It estimated roughly 5 percent, or roughly 32,000, of its 640,000 customers recently have received notices informing them that their balances were overdue.

During Tuesday’s brief deliberations, PUC Chairman Phil Bartlett said he was sympathetic to the concerns raised in the complaint and to the plight of utility customers during the pandemic. He outlined various protections available to customers who have trouble paying bills, including special payment arrangements. Additional resources are available this winter due to the pandemic, Bartlett said, and he encouraged customers struggling to pay their bills to dial 211 to see if they are eligible for that assistance.

Bartlett noted that, in some cases, the receipt of a disconnection notice is required in order to be eligible for assistance.

“While receiving a disconnection notice is understandably distressing, it may also unlock additional help,” he said.

In all cases, he said, the PUC’s Consumer Assistance and Safety Division will work with customers to avoid disconnection.

The PUC’s decision was denounced by the Maine Office of Public Advocate, which had supported calls for restating the ban.

“We are very disappointed in the PUC’s decision in this matter,” said Barry Hobbins, the public advocate. “Since the start of the winter period, the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Maine have increased exponentially. Maine businesses continue to struggle and, as a result, many workers are either unemployed or have had their hours and compensation substantially reduced.”

Hobbins encouraged customers receiving a disconnection notice to contact their utility. He pointed out that customers who agree to payment arrangements and comply with them cannot be disconnected.


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