An independent audit of the management structure at Maine’s largest power provider has found the organization faces challenges but is likely equipped to overcome them.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission ordered the review of Central Maine Power’s management system in January 2020. The order followed an investigation of the utility’s rates.

Liberty Consulting Group of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, performed the audit of CMP, which is a subsidiary of Connecticut-based Avangrid. Iberdrola which is headquartered in Bilbao, Spain, is the majority owner of Avangrid. Liberty released its audit on Monday and found that Avangrid is not “a fundamentally or irredeemably flawed operation.”

“Like all organizations, it can can improve, cares about doing so and has taken efforts to get better,” the 125-page audit report, which was released Monday, found.

The audit delved into a number of complex management matters focusing on such issues as to whether management structure had contributed to a decrease in customer service quality and if the effects of transferring personnel and decision making from CMP to Avangrid had negatively impacted customer service. Auditors said that since 2019 the company has made strides to improve its level of customer service, but cautioned against complacency.

Liberty Consulting concluded that management’s “overemphasizing of cuts and limits on resources as a means for closing gaps in meeting the earnings expectations of the equity investment community has sacrificed effectiveness in providing service.”

“Actions begun in 2019 have restored resources and provided a greater focus on what is needed to ensure effective service delivery,” Liberty Consulting found. “However, it remains prudent to question the sustainability of the positive changes that have occurred. We found a number of structure and management contributors to service problems that CMP has experienced since 2016.”

CMP issued a statement Monday evening noting that the audit found CMP had made strides in improving service and operations. The company also admitted it has room to improve and accepted responsibility for the billing problems that plagued some customers in recent years.

“This independent report recognizes that CMP is on the right path to overcome the organizational challenges that impacted our service to customers in the past,” David Flanagan, executive chairman for CMP, said in a statement. “We take full responsibility for the mismanagement of our Smartcare system rollout in 2017 which resulted in an unacceptable service experience for many of our customers.”

“We have made steady improvements in our service and reliability, and we are entirely committed to ensuring our customers’ expectations are met, and even exceeded, and that power is delivered affordably, safely and reliably while we invest in the grid to accommodate new renewable energy sources,” Flanagan said, referring to CMP’s ongoing effort to connect about 500 community solar projects to the grid.

Avangrid also owns New England Clean Energy Connect, or NECEC, which is building a $950 million, 145-mile, high-voltage transmission line through western Maine – primarily on land owned by CMP – that will enable Massachusetts to import hydropower from Quebec.

In response to the audit, CMP said it has “consistently met or exceeded customer service performance measures set by the PUC in 2020 such as answering customers calls in less than 30 seconds.” More than than 99.9 percent of CMP monthly bills are accurate and on time, according to CMP. And CMP said it will provide $25 to any customer whose bills are inaccurate or late.

CMP also announced Monday evening that it is in the process of recruiting members to a so-called Customer Listening Council that will be able to share interests and concerns with CMP’s senior leadership.

“To keep us continually tuned in to the expectations of our customers, we will look to the input of a Customer Listening Council,” Scott Mahoney, CMP’s interim president and CEO said. Mahoney said council members will provide feedback “to keep us on the path of improving the customer experience.”

But Rep. Seth Berry, a Democrat who represents District 55, said the audit only supports his contention that Maine utility customers can do better. Berry serves as House Chair of the Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, and has served as one of the leaders of a movement to replace CMP with the Pine Tree Power Co., a consumer-owned utility. Berry also is the principal sponsor of L.D. 1708, the bill that would create Pine Tree Power.

The bill, which was approved by the Legislature on June 30, is currently sitting on the desk of Gov. Janet Mills, Berry said. She can sign it, veto it or let it become law without her signature. She has expressed concerns about creating a consumer-owned utility at the same time the state is trying to transition to renewable energy.

“What this customer-funded report shows is what we knew already,” Berry said in an email. “CMP’s captive customers are less than 2 percent of a massive, multinational monopoly. When it comes to regulation, Iberdrola is the cat and the Maine is the mouse.”

The audit reported that CMP’s 640,000 Maine customers comprise about 2 percent of Iberdrola’s worldwide customer base.

“Management at CMP and at Avangrid is in a shambles. Greed is baked in. Their boards are stacked with lawyers and former politicians demanding profits – not qualified engineers improving performance,” Berry said. “The minute we look away, they’ll be back to their old ways. This is not a system we can count on for all our future energy needs.”

Public Utilities Commission Chairman Philip Bartlett said in a statement that the commission is “seeking comments from the public and interested parties on the report and will determine appropriate next steps, which could include a formal proceeding, once we have more fully reviewed the report and any comments filed.”

— Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report, which also contains material from The Associated Press.

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