Central Maine Power Co. shut off electricity to 29,554 homes last year for non-payment of bills, an apparent record number.

Disconnections hovered around 17,500 a year until 2007, on the eve of the national recession, then shot up — rising by 60 percent last year. Overall, economists say, the disconnection activity at Maine’s largest utility can serve as an indicator — similar to jobless statistics and mortgage foreclosures — to track the state’s economy.

The figures were requested by the Maine Sunday Telegram to examine the relationship between power disconnections and the state’s economic health.

“It makes sense that as the economy is doing poorly, these are bills that just don’t get paid,” said Amanda Rector, Maine’s state economist. “There’s been no substantial improvement, so it’s not surprising that disconnects would stay high.”

CMP figures aren’t available yet for the first half of 2012. But community action programs have been fielding a flood of calls so far this year about disconnections.

At Western Maine Community Action, which serves low-income residents in Franklin County, requests for help with disconnects and inability to pay electric bills has doubled since 2010. Calls jumped from an average of 25 a month in 2010, to 58 a month this year.

“Once the (winter) moratorium is over, the calls come in,” said Danielle Flannery, program manager at WMCA in East Wilton. The power company is prohibited from disconnecting electric service between Nov. 15 and April 15 and the peak period for disconnections is right before the moratorium starts and right after it ends, according to officials.

“In winter, people may choose to pay for groceries or car repair. Come April, they have a $750 electric bill and can’t pay it,” Flannery said.

From 2008 through 2010, Maine lost 28,000 jobs, many of them in manufacturing and construction. Maine’s seasonally adjusted jobless rate stayed around 5 percent into 2008, jumping above 8 percent in 2009 and 2010, before moderating last year. But people who lost manual labor jobs have had a tough time replacing them, according to Glenn Mills, director of economic research at the state’s labor department. That may help explain why disconnects hit a high point last year.

“You want to maintain housing and food ahead of most things, and electricity is part of housing,” he said. “You try to keep the house with the lights on.”

CMP had roughly 544,000 home customers in 2011, and stopped service to 29,554 of them. Last year was the peak, so far, of an upward trend that began in 2007, when disconnects totalled 18,553.

“It’s our view that it just reflects the hardships that our customers have come up against,” said John Carroll, CMP’s spokesman.

There’s no clear demographic profile of whose power is disconnected, said Derek Davidson, director of the PUC’s Consumer Assistance Division. Aside from low-income residents, anyone who loses a job is at risk, he said.

Because of the winter moratorium, some people let their electric bills slide that time of year, coupled with that, with last year’s high heating oil costs, many people turned to electricity to heat their homes.

“With electricity, you get billed for what you’ve already used,” Davidson said. “With heating oil, if you don’t pay for it, you don’t get it.”

Some residents find themselves burdened with electric bills that they simply can’t pay back by spring.

“I see CMP bills that are in the thousands of dollars,” said Kelly Lachance, who manages the low-income energy assistance program at Kennebec Valley Community Action Program.

Those bills often belong to people who relied on electric heat to stay warm, or need medical equipment, such as oxygen pumps. CMP maintains a program that offers reduced rates for people with medical equipment, as well as those with very low incomes and high electricity use. At Kennebec Valley CAP, roughly 14,000 customers a year sought these benefits the past two years, but fewer than 5,700 qualified. The maximum benefit was $600, Lachance said.

“Even if someone gets a $600 benefit, what can that do when they have a $2,000 bill?” she said.

CMP says the economy is the primary cost for the record number of disconnections, but the company also beefed up its credit collection methods over the period, in part by outsourcing the job and also through a more focused attempt to reduce charge-offs for bad debt. That helped increase the number of disconnections in 2009, and also the number of complaints, said the the PUC’s Davidson.

The collection practices are the subject of a two-year investigation by the PUC, which is concerned about the amount of bad debt the company is accumulating and the potential for ratepayers to be stuck with the tab.

It’s too soon to say if the situation will improve in 2012, Davidson said.

CMP files an annual report with the PUC to summarize its credit and collections activities. Last year’s report shows:

* The average home bill was $81.04 a month.

* The average overdue bill was $386.10.

* Although 29,554 home accounts were disconnected, all but 6,340 eventually were restarted when bills were settled.

* CMP’s collection agency recovered $2.4 million from 43,715 customers.

* CMP wrote off more than $4.6 million in debt that it couldn’t recover.

PUC rules require gas and electric utilities to make attempts to contact customers and negotiate payment options before power is shut off.

Last year’s disconnection record doesn’t surprise Davidson.

Activity fell in 2010, he noted, but that was temporary. “Because the economy didn’t turn around, the problem built back up again,” he said.

At the PUC’s consumer assistance division, Davidson said it’s important to identify and deal with customers who carry large balances.

“It’s better to force an issue when someone owes $1,000 than to let it go to $10,000,” he said.

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