AUGUSTA — Maine legislators are considering extending a low-income assistance program for electricity customers who are struggling each month to pay their bills.

Maine law requires Central Maine Power and Versant Power to establish a so-called Arrearage Management Program that helps customers who’ve fallen behind in paying their bills. To participate, a customer must be in arrears of $500 or more for at least 90 days. In exchange for timely payment of the current amount due on each monthly bill, participants can be forgiven for up to 100% of the past-due amount up to a cap over 12 months.

The program is capped at $3,600 a year, but the state Office of the Public Advocate has proposed increasing the amount eligible for forgiveness to $6,000 a year.

The 10-year-old law is due to expire in September and proposed legislation would extend it. Rep. Steven Foster, R-Dexter, the bill’s sponsor, wants to continue the program for four more years to reduce administrative costs and gather data about the program’s use.

“It’s a last resort to get them into a bill-paying mode,” Foster said Thursday morning at a forum in Augusta, referring to participating ratepayers. “The goal is to now become a monthly ratepayer.”

Versant Power, citing increasing reliance on electricity as Maine sets goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said the state must “make more tools available” for reliable and affordable energy. The utility said it supports extending the program for four years, but that the arrearage program “deserves a greater level of permanency and predictability.”


Electricity prices are falling, but remain high for many customers. The Maine Public Utilities Commission in November approved lower electricity rates – about $30 a month on average – beginning Jan. 1 that reflect falling natural gas prices. But prices in New England are among the highest in the nation because of the cost to transport natural gas through pipelines that power generating plants, ratepayer costs to achieve clean energy goals and other factors.

At the same time, many Mainers, especially seniors whose incomes are primarily dependent on Social Security, are squeezed by medical bills and inflation’s toll on food, housing and other necessities.

“These customers may be able to pay for their monthly usage but cannot afford the extra expense of paying off the arrears,” the public advocate said in a Dec. 1 report. “To put it simply, these customers can keep up, but they can’t catch up.”

Megan Hannan, executive director of Maine Community Action Partnership, urged lawmakers at a public hearing to make the arrearage program permanent. In the past few years, low-income customers benefited from COVID-19 financial support that is no longer available, she said.

“People are still finding themselves unable to pay their entire energy bill and once they get behind it is hard to get caught up,” Hannan said.

Maine residents are increasingly taking advantage of the program. In the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 5,738 customers were eligible and 1,638 customers were enrolled, the highest annual number of customers ever, the PUC said.


“We keep lowering the bar by raising the price of electricity,” Foster said.

Since the program’s start in 2016, 20,428 customers have been eligible to participate, according to the PUC. Of the eligible customers, 7,394, or 36%, have participated.

Public Advocate William Harwood said the relatively low participation rate could be due to insufficient publicity and a reluctance by some low-income customers to seek public assistance. Customers could automatically be enrolled if data were shared by state health and human services officials and utilities, he said.

The program’s cost last year was about $6.6 million, which includes about $5.8 million in bill payments forgiven and a little less than $800,000 in estimated administrative costs.

Utilities write off electricity bills in arrears and seek reimbursement when they submit new rates for approval by the PUC. The arrearage program benefits customers who face the prospect of their electricity being disconnected and utilities that are owed money “that will likely never be paid,” the public advocate’s report said.

The bill will go to a work session in the Energy, Utilities and Technology committee before it’s voted out.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.