After receiving hundreds of consumer complaints over unexpectedly high bills, the Maine Public Utilities Commission will decide next week whether to open a full investigation of Central Maine Power Co.’s billing, metering and customer service operations.

The PUC is in the midst of a preliminary inquiry that could lead to a full investigation, called a management audit. It will meet on Tuesday to decide whether to pursue the management audit.

Harry Lanphear, spokesman for the PUC, said the commission has gotten more than 1,000 complaints over bills.

“That’s a very large number of complaints,” Lanphear said, and while some were resolved, there are still hundreds of open complaints on bills for which consumers feel there’s been no adequate explanation.

Complaints over bills spiked in December and January. The standard offer – which is the per kilowatt-hour price that most customers pay – increased late last year, and a sharp cold snap over the holidays caused electricity use to jump, but many customers said their bills increased beyond what could be explained by those factors.

Late last month, the PUC said it had decided to start an inquiry and it has filed a data request with CMP for information on about two dozen aspects of its electricity delivery operation, including usage, billing and the company’s new billing system, which was installed last year.

Lanphear said that if the PUC approves the management audit, the commission will likely hire a consultant or consultants with expertise in billing and use issues as well as how customer service operations handle complaints and questions.

The hiring process should take about two to three months and, once the consultant or consultants are hired, the management audit will begin. Lanphear said he couldn’t offer any estimate of how long the review might take.

BILL DOUBLED IN SOME CASES

It could not be determined Friday night what range of remedies the PUC could order if it determines that CMP customers were billed incorrectly. But recent history may offer an indication. Following complaints from Emera Maine customers in 2016, the PUC initiated a management audit that identified shortcomings in the handling of customer service functions and the implementation of a new billing system. The PUC ended up reducing the company’s request for a rate increase, from 8.3 percent to 3.75 percent.

In the CMP situation, some customers said their electricity bills more than doubled from the same month a year before. Patti Kelley-Clark of Camden said her bill jumped that much even though the only major change she made was the installation of a new, more efficient water heater. Attempts to figure out with CMP customer service workers why the large increase occurred left her confused and still unsure of why the bill went up so much, she said.

However, Gail Rice, a spokeswoman for CMP, said last month that the company spent a lot of time trying to figure out and explain the situation to customers and, in most cases, the standard offer price hike and cold snap were to blame.

PUC AUDIT NOT UNUSUAL

Lanphear said that while the number of complaints the PUC has fielded in this case is large, it’s not unusual for regulators to do a management audit of a utility’s operations. He pointed to the PUC management audit of Emera Maine, which provides electric service to northern and eastern Maine, two years ago when questions were raised about its customer service operations, how it responded to power outages and other issues.

Overseeing the operation of the utilities is part of the PUC’s job, he said.

The PUC is also reviewing how the two utilities responded to an October windstorm that left nearly a half-million customers without power. CMP has said that the storm caused $69 million in damage and it wants customers to foot the bill for about $13 million under a 2014 agreement.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes contributed to this report.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]

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