Holly Kozlowski of Saco testified at a Public Utilities Commission hearing in Portland last July 16 about Central Maine Power billing issues. “I’m shaking with outrage,” Kozlowski said.

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.

Read the 138-page billing system report here:

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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.

Read the 213-page rate case report here:

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“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.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

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 review the findings and recommendations closely and prepare a response by Jan. 23.

“CMP recognizes that … the recommended decisions issued today reflect the input of a variety of Maine stakeholders including customers, the renewable energy community, environmental advocacy groups, labor unions, the Office of the Public Advocate and citizen advocates,” she said.

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.”

Several organized groups are working to get relief for consumers, including a closed Facebook group with more than 8,500 members called CMP Ratepayers Unite.

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.

Separately, the commission’s staff last February proposed that CMP’s allowable profit be cut with a “management efficiency adjustment” because the utility’s service has lagged since 2016.

The commission determines how much money a regulated utility can bring in to provide adequate service to customers and adequate returns to shareholders.

The Office of the Public Advocate asked the commission in a filing in November to penalize CMP $6.5 million and order independent testing of the utility’s SmartCare billing system.

In a response to the commission filed 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.

CMP has been under heavy scrutiny for its poor response to the October 2017 wind storm, which knocked out electricity to nearly half a million Mainers, some for up to a week.

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.

Credit: Lori Valigra

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.