April 01, 2020
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Maine public advocate urges regulators to hold CMP responsible for high bills

Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins asked the Public Utilities Commission on Thursday to reject its staff’s findings earlier this month that Central Maine Power’s billing and metering system had no systemic problems.

In a filing with the commission, the public advocate also asked it to reject the recommendation by its staff to end an interim payment policy that allowed customers to defer payment of contested portions of their bills.

In their filing to the commission, Hobbins and his staff likened the staff report to bad medicine by a doctor who cannot diagnose a malady.

“The [staff] report is reminiscent of a doctor’s diagnosis to a series of patients who have been complaining of similar symptoms with various degrees of severity,” they wrote. “The doctor performs a few tests but does not find a serious disease in any particular case. Therefore, the doctor concludes, there is nothing seriously wrong with any of the patients. The patients are simply a group of complainers.

“He prescribes aspirin and tells them to get some rest. The doctor reaches this conclusion with respect to all patients despite anecdotal information that the symptoms have been extremely serious in some instances, and more importantly, without ever actually determining the real underlying cause of the problem. This would [be] bad medical practice and it is an equally bad approach to regulation,” they wrote.

Hobbins has maintained that CMP has never acknowledged that its SmartCare billing system is at the root of the problems.

For its part, CMP in a filing today agreed with the commission staff that there are no systemic problems that caused erroneous high usage on customers’ bills. It also agreed that the payment deferment plan should be discontinued.

However, CMP disagreed with the magnitude and scope of a recommended Independent Electricity-Use Audit Program to get help for customers experiencing continued high usage.

CMP also asked the commission to have customers pay a significant amount of the cost of an earlier audit on its billing and metering system. That audit, conducted by Liberty Consulting Group of Pennsylvania, found that the high bills customers were experiencing were related to cold weather and high usage rather than CMP’s billing and metering system. The public advocate hired a separate auditor who disagreed with that conclusion.

The comments are part of the review process at the commission, which regulates utilities.

The commission’s staff on Jan. 9 issued two reports aimed at resolving complaints and counterclaims about CMP’s billing system and its rates. Comments on those reports were due Thursday. The commission will make a final ruling Jan. 30.

The public advocate did support some of the findings of commission staff in its 138-page report on the billing system.

He supported letting individual customers continue to pursue complaints regarding high usage with CMP, through the commission’s Consumer Assistance and Safety Division, or in civil court. The public advocate also supported additional targeted testing of SmartCare and establishment of an Independent Electricity-Use Audit Program for customers who have experienced significant increases in usage.

Regarding the rate case, Hobbins asked the commission in a separate filing to limit any rate increase to the lowest possible amount.

In its filing today, CMP said the commission staff’s recommendation would penalize it too harshly and cited worries about possible downgrades to its credit rating. If that happened, it could be more difficult for the company to attract investment to grow.

CMP also said that it could incur more than $22.2 million in costs related to recommendations in the commission staff’s reports, the delay in implementing a rate increase and getting a lower rate increase than it had requested.

The commission’s staff in its 213-page rate case report had recommended an increase of 2.45 percent in an average residential bill each month starting March 1. While that’s less than half of what CMP was originally seeking, the public advocate and consumers have heavily criticized the proposed rate increase.

The public advocate said that with the changes to both reports, “a final order in this proceeding would provide a balanced response to prior and ongoing issues with CMP’s SmartCare billing system.”

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 also recommended terminating the interim payment policy so customers can no longer defer paying contested parts of their bill.

The Jan. 9 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.

The 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 of 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.

 


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