Maine’s Public Utilities Commission said Tuesday it will proceed with its investigation into Central Maine Power’s winter disconnection policies.
Commissioners R. Bruce Williamson and Randall Davis and Chairman Phil Bartlett unanimously supported the investigation, saying the commission had warned CMP twice last winter to stop using language in its notices saying that if a customer failed to respond they could be disconnected during the winter period without approval from the commission.
That is not allowed in occupied residences during the winter period from Nov. 15 to April 15.
“It appears the company may still be using notices that contain this statement,” Bartlett said. “If CMP has issued such notices it clearly has violated Chapter 815 Section 10. A utility that willfully violates commission rules may be subject to an administrative penalty of $5,000 per violation and up to $500,000 for any related series of violations.”
The objective of the investigation will be to determine if CMP violated rules or mislead customers and whether a penalty is warranted.
The commission gave CMP until Jan. 28 to respond to the notice of the investigation and show cause about why it shouldn’t be penalized.
“CMP will fully cooperate with the [commission’s] order and provide the information requested regarding the company’s practice of issuing disconnection notices in the winter period,” CMP spokesperson Catharine Hartnett said. “Based on recently expressed public comment and media coverage, the company feels there is clearly an opportunity to improve public understanding of the law as well as the goal of the company to have customers communicate with us if they are challenged in paying bills.”
The commission’s deliberations came after a customer earlier this month received a notice from CMP saying her service would be disconnected without approval from the commission.
Rockland resident Faith Deane said she received a document saying that to avoid disconnection the recipient should call CMP. At the bottom, it read, “if you fail to contact us, we can disconnect your services during the winter months without approval” of the commission.
“It’s really terrifying to come home after work to think, gee we’re in the middle of winter; we’re going to get a huge snowstorm tomorrow. I’ve got two little kids, and now they’re threatening to disconnect my electricity without any approval. It’s a horrible feeling,” Deane told Maine Public.
“It is a terrible time to be using scare tactics like this,” said state Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham.
Berry included the disconnect notice and other similar exhibits in a letter to the three utilities commissioners dated Jan. 15 in which he asked a series of questions, including whether the commission allows CMP to threaten customers with winter disconnections, including listing a date for the service to be cut off.
On Jan. 16, Bartlett, the commission’s chairman, responded to Berry in a letter obtained by the Bangor Daily News.
“Under law and commission rules, there is no prohibition on disconnections occurring in the winter period. The prohibition is on utility disconnections in the winter without authority from the commission’s Consumer Assistance and Safety Division. To the extent that CMP has issued notices that state otherwise … such notices are inaccurate and misleading,” Bartlett wrote to Berry.
Commissioners also denied an earlier recommendation by its staff on how to design CMP’s rates, saying they need more information. The commission regulates public utilities and determines how much money they can make and the rates they can charge.
“Any rate design changes in the current climate with CMP’s billing and customer [issues] would be challenging,” Bartlett said. “The commission is about to complete its investigation into CMP’s metering and billing system … Given the recent experience with a high volume of errors during CMP’s transition to new billing software and the fact that not all billing defects have been resolved I cannot support rate design changes.”
CMP spokesperson Hartnett said CMP is disappointed in the decision.
“Decisions about customer charges, time-of-use rates and optional demand rates must necessarily balance benefits to customers with costs, and do so across a spectrum of customer income levels and power usage practices,” she said. Hartnett added that the details considered in the rate case offer the chance for CMP to look at the issues in light of its current cost structure and customer usage patterns.