January 27, 2020
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Dozens of customers ask Maine to banish CMP

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
A CMP smart meter as pictured in July.

Between her home, volunteer efforts and rental properties, Brenda Scally of Saco is responsible for 10 different accounts with Central Maine Power, and every one of them has had a major issue with billing, she said. So earlier this week she joined with dozens of other aggrieved ratepayers in filing a series of complaints with state regulators asking them to kick Maine’s largest utility out of the state.

Scally shared some of her experiences with CMP under oath at a Maine Public Utilities Commision public hearing in July. For example, one of her elderly tenants in a small apartment received bizarrely high electricity bills, she said. Eventually, she found out CMP was billing the tenant using data from somebody else’s smart meter.

She also received a June bill, which she shared with the Bangor Daily News, that displayed an obvious arithmetic error in the section of the bill displaying her total usage.

In another instance, Scally acquired a new property in Whitefield and initiated electric service there. After two months, CMP removed the meter and shut power off without telling her or her tenant, she said. When she asked CMP why it had removed the meter, she was told it had been inactive for years. When she asked CMP to bring it back, she was told the property needed to be inspected. She called again and was told that, actually, it did not need an inspection and that somebody would be right out. The company then installed a broken meter, which workers had to come back and replace, she said.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Holly Kozlowski of Saco testifies at a Public Utilities Commission hearing in Portland in July about Central Maine Power billing issues. "I'm shaking with outrage," Kozlowski said.

CMP has repeatedly told the press it cannot comment on individual customer stories and accounts.

“Each time you call them, it’s hours to deal with it,” said Scally, who works for New England Heat Pumps and is familiar with the world of electricity usage and billing. “It’s a full-time job just to deal with CMP.”

Fed up, she gathered signatures near her local polling place on Election Day to file a group complaint with the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The complaint asked regulators to replace CMP with another utility and effectively banish the company from the state. Scally’s is the third such complaint filed by ratepayers in recent weeks.

“Central Maine Power can no longer be trusted in any area,” Scally said.

CMP has sought to have the complaints dismissed.

The complaints “draw broad conclusions that are not supported by facts, activity, lack of activity or deficiencies in CMP’s service,” CMP spokesperson Catharine Hartnett said.

Valery Harris of Brunswick, who helped start the effort, expects three additional complaints to be submitted before the end of the year, she said.

It’s been more than two years since CMP botched the rollout of its $57 million SmartCare billing system, which led to widespread reports of billing errors and customer service failures. Just last month, the Maine Office of the Public Advocate, which represents consumers in state regulatory matters, told the PUC the company’s billing problems had not been solved.

“To this day, CMP does not appear to have admitted the existence of a problem with SmartCare when the sheer number of complaints and the number of actual problems identified by the Commission, the parties, their witnesses and consultants belies any believable claim that ‘all is well,’” the Public Advocate’s Office said in a regulatory filing.

Courtesy of Central Maine Power
Courtesy of Central Maine Power
Doug Herling, CEO of Central Maine Power, said the utility is still completing an internal audit on complaints of high customer bills, but so far its new billing system and smart meters don't appear to be contributing to artificially increasing customer usage.

Angry CMP customers have taken several steps. They filed a lawsuit alleging fraud against the company, supported a bill that would begin a state takeover of investor-owned utilities, started a petition to have CMP’s license to operate revoked, and testified before regulators about what they say is a pattern of inaccurate bills backed by unresponsive customer service.

But now, as regulators’ investigation into CMP’s billing system nears its end without having produced much in the way of conclusions, some ratepayers have launched a new strategy of repeatedly filing group complaints to hold CMP accountable for what they say are unacceptable business practices.

Under Maine law, if 10 or more people join together in a complaint against a regulated utility, the PUC must publish it on its website and then decide whether to investigate the complaint. While the PUC has investigated many 10-person complaints against a variety of Maine utilities over the years, this repeated filing of the same complaint from different groups of 10 or more people is something new, PUC spokesperson Harry Lanphear said.

“We haven’t seen this before,” Lanphear said. He also added that he could not identify a case where the PUC revoked a utility’s right to operate in the state.

Harris said the repeated filings were a way to get the PUC’s attention and prevent CMP from dismissing individual complaints on technical grounds.

“By submitting several 10-person complaints, the PUC is going to say, ‘We have a problem. We need to investigate the entire company as a whole, not individual pieces of the company.’” Harris said. “That’s the goal.”

The complaints all use nearly identical language. They were written by members of the Facebook group CMP Ratepayers Unite, a grassroots organization that formed in response to CMP’s billing issues and has since represented ratepayers at regulatory proceedings.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Maine Public Utilities Commissioner Bruce Williamson listens at a hearing in Portland in July.

Ratepayers Tasha Dolce of Alfred and Harris developed the language of the complaints, along with Rev. Deke Sawyer of Jackman, who was part of a group that earlier this year successfully initiated a PUC investigation into CMP’s reliability in several rural communities. Harris then posted the complaint templates to the CMP Ratepayers Unite Facebook group, and encouraged others to collect signatures and submit them to the PUC.

“CMP has proven itself unfit to continue serving the people of Maine,” the complaints stated. “They are unfit in the areas of safety, reliability, affordability, customer service and billing as well as the inability to handle even the smallest of storms.”

In a response asking for one of the complaints to be dismissed, CMP denied the allegations and said the complaints were simply “throwing a large number of issues against the wall, hoping that something will stick and become the basis of a Commission investigation.”

“This is plainly an abuse of the 10-person complaint process,” CMP senior counsel Richard Hevey wrote to the commission.

The complaints, which were submitted and published on the PUC website between mid-October and early December, all call for the PUC to either begin to open bids for other utilities to buy out CMP or form a consumer-owned utility to replace the company.

A bill currently before the legislature would create such a consumer-owned utility, and the PUC has hired an independent consultant to analyze the possibility, with a report due by the end of February.

CMP is owned by Connecticut-based Avangrid. Avangrid is, in turn, owned by Spanish energy giant Iberdrola. CMP is not the first Iberdrola-owned utility to face a public backlash after implementing a new billing system. In 2016, United Kingdom regulators fined Iberdrola subsidiary Scottish Power $25 million for customer service and billing issues that arose after the company rolled out a new IT and billing system.

The PUC currently has several open investigations into CMP. One, opened in January, is looking at CMP’s billing and metering issues, which began 14 months earlier. Another, opened in July 2018, is examining CMP’s rates and revenue requirements, which was initiated after former Rep. Herb Adams, D-Portland, filed a 10-person complaint.

“We’re certainly looking hard at this utility,” the PUC’s Lanphear said.

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Email mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

 



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