This story will be updated.
The staff recommendation found no systemic problems with CMP’s billing and metering system but ordered the company to hire an independent company to test specific issues that have not been resolved.
It also recommended terminating the interim payment policy so customers can no longer defer paying contested parts of their bill.
In the rate case, the staff recommended an increase of 2.45 percent in a customer’s bill starting March 1.
However, the staff also recommended that CMP be penalized $4.9 million in its annual distribution revenue because of poor management.
The recommendations are not expected to quell mounting consumer criticism of the utility.
“The commission needs to give assurances to the thousands of individuals waiting for answers as to why their bills are high,” Public Advocate Barry Hobbins said.
“It’s incredible that this happened over two years ago and we still don’t have any real answers,” Hobbins said, referring to when the high bill complaints started. “Most questions have remained unanswered because CMP has never admitted for the record that their billing system was at fault.”
The examiners’ reports were produced by staff who reviewed all testimony and exhibits in the cases. They serve as recommendations to the three commissioners: Chairman Philip Bartlett and commissioners R. Bruce Williamson and Randall Davis.
Parties to the case will have until Jan. 23 to file any comments about the report. The commissioners are scheduled to hold final deliberations on both cases Jan. 30.
Thursday’s staff recommendations relate to two commission case dockets. Docket 2019-00015 addresses complaints about high bills beginning Nov. 1, 2017, including allegations of incorrect dollar amounts or incorrect usage amounts. Docket 2018-00194 addresses CMP’s proposal to change its distribution rates. Both cases can be read on the commission’s website.
The reports follow a tense couple years during which customers continued to complain about high bills, and auditors for the commission and for the Office of the Public Advocate found contradictory causes for the problems. The commission’s auditor blamed cold weather and high electricity use while the public advocate’s auditor blamed CMP’s SmartCare billing system flaws for the high bills some customers experienced.
CMP spokesperson Catharine Hartnett said the company would comment on the recommendations after it reviewed the documents.
Testimony piles up
The causes of the high bills remain illusive and could differ from customer to customer.
“There’s still not sufficient information in the record for the commission to conclude that the high billing issues were not due to the system,” said Andrew Landry, deputy public advocate. “There’s no basis for the commission to give CMP a clean bill of health. The work of both [auditors] was too limited in scope to identify the cause of the high bill complaints.”
The commission held public hearings in July during which 80 CMP customers submitted sworn written or oral testimony.
Most witnesses at the Portland hearing complained about faulty smart meter readings, escalating electric bills, erratic bills ranging from $300 one month and up to $1,100 in other months, long call hold times or no response from CMP’s customer service and poor electric service from CMP. They also said CMP should not be rewarded for poor service with a rate rise.
“I still owe CMP $4,000 and counting,” Rob DuPaul, a contractor from Sanford, testified at the time. He saw his CMP bills keep rising after he got a smart meter. “I can’t afford that.”
Members of a proposed class action lawsuit against CMP are alleging that more than 97,000 of the utility’s customers have been overcharged 50 percent or more on their electricity bills, and another 200,000 customers have been overcharged up to 50 percent.
And lawmakers along with consumers are calling for CMP to be replaced by a consumer-owned utility company.
The commission determines how much money a regulated utility can bring in to provide adequate service to customers and adequate returns to shareholders.
The Maine Office of the Public Advocate, which represents consumers, asked the commission in a filing in November to penalize CMP $6.5 million and order independent testing of the the utility’s SmartCare billing system.
In a response to the commission filed on Nov. 26, CMP said its SmartCare system is not flawed and is functioning properly. It said a financial penalty is not warranted, and that the actions requested by the public advocate would undermine rather than restore consumer confidence in CMP.
At the same time, it was switching to the new SmartCare billing system, after which customers complained of high bills, double or more than for same months in previous years.
CMP has maintained that the high bills are from high use because of an unusually cold winter from 2017 to 2018.
In recognizing that the company needs to regain customer trust, CMP CEO Doug Herling last August filed a request with the public utilities commission to create a fund to help ratepayers with billing complaints and to partner with Efficiency Maine to help customers reduce energy costs.
In December CMP hired Dawn Hill, a six-term Maine legislator, to identify problems and find ways to help CMP improve customer service. Hill served four terms in the Maine Senate and two in the Maine House. She was a former chair of the appropriations committee.