Maine Public Utilities Commission staff has 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.
The staff issued two reports Thursday aimed at resolving complaints and counterclaims about Central Maine Power’s billing system and its rates.
The 138-page report on the billing system, plus appendices, also recommended terminating the interim payment policy so customers can no longer defer paying contested parts of their bill.
In the 213-page rate case report, the staff recommended an increase of 2.45 percent in an average residential bill each month starting March 1. That’s less than half of what CMP was originally seeking. The increase is for improvements to customer service and reliability.
However, the staff also recommended that CMP be fined $4.9 million in its annual distribution revenue because of poor management.The penalty will be lifted when the company meets all of its service-quality metrics for at least 12 consecutive months.
The staff criticized CMP’s management for how it implemented its SmartCare billing software. It recommended that CMP pay for additional testing of the system and fix remaining issues under the watch of an independent party, plus come up with a plan to manage the system going forward.
It recommended that CMP hire an independent third party to monitor and evaluate the performance of its call center, which has been a target of strong complaints by consumers who said they waited hours on hold or did not get results that helped them.
And it recommended an audit of CMP and its affiliate service companies to see if there is something ingrained in CMP’s management structure that led to poorer customer service over the past several years.
The recommendations are not expected to quell mounting consumer criticism of the utility.
“If the commission staff thinks we can just wipe our hands of this and it’s going to go away, they haven’t read the pulse of the Maine people and ratepayers,” Public Advocate Barry Hobbins said. “There’s going to still be that question of trust and integrity of the billing and metering system until there are answers.”
The Maine Office of the Public Advocate, which represents consumers, said it is disappointed with the findings about the billing system and recommendation to stop deferred payments, but generally pleased with penalty imposed on CMP.
Hobbins said the conclusions were made without looking at the facts. He said the commission needs to give assurances to the thousands of individuals waiting for answers as to why their bills are high, and a full independent audit could produce answers.
“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.”
He said the public advocate will be submitting comments in response to the recommendations.