HALLOWELL — Under pressure to get to the bottom of why customers continue to have billing problems with Central Maine Power, state utility regulators decided Tuesday to open a formal investigation of the company’s metering and billing systems and practices.

The decision by the Maine Public Utilities Commission begins a process of legal discovery, which includes subpoena powers to compel witnesses to testify, participation by stakeholder groups, technical conferences and public hearings, on a schedule yet to be set.

“Ratepayers need to be able to depend on the accuracy of the bills,” Commission Chairman Mark Vannoy said after outlining the reasons for moving to a full investigation.

On a separate track and as part of a current rate case, the PUC will look further into communications and customer service shortcomings at CMP.

In March, after receiving complaints, the PUC opened what it called a summary investigation. It hired Liberty Consulting Group to perform a technical review of CMP’s billing and metering system. That included 52 interviews with management, 215 data requests, random field samples of meters and a deep dive into the inner workings of the new billing system.

Like a court, the commission may take testimony, subpoena witnesses and records, issue decisions or orders, hold public and evidentiary hearings, and encourage participation by all affected parties, including utility customers.

Liberty presented its findings, which were released on Dec. 20. But those were just Liberty’s finding, not the PUC’s.

Now, the PUC will begin its formal adjudicatory process – where the commissioners will rule on the facts gathered in the case – conducted by its own staff.

NOT ANSWERED: WHY PROBLEMS PERSIST?

Tuesday’s action comes after the PUC released a long-awaited report just before Christmas that concluded last winter’s cold spell was largely responsible for soaring bills for tens of thousands of customers. But while Liberty’s eight-month billing and metering systems audit called out CMP for its poor response to the flood of complaints, it failed to answer some basic questions, including why problems persist to this day.

And while the majority of complaints are with home accounts, a comment posted Monday by David Hughes, superintendent of the Scarborough Sanitary District, illustrates the breadth of the mystery.

Calling for a full investigation, Hughes wrote: “For over a year now, CMP has been dramatically under-billing the Scarborough Sanitary District’s wastewater treatment facility’s account. Our typical bill prior to this issue was between $7,000 – $10,000 per month. For a year now, our bills have been less than $500/month; That is not a typo. All based on estimates. Despite calls to CMP, PUC and our attorneys, this issue has yet to be resolved. Our most recent bill jumped to $8,000/month which is more realistic but again based on an estimate.”

Calls for a full investigation had been mounting in the days since the Liberty Consulting report was made public. Those voices included CMP Ratepayers Unite, an online customer advocacy group, and the Office of Public Advocate.

CMP said last week that it’s continuing to review billing disputes on a case-by-case basis and will try to help pinpoint the cause of higher-than-expected bills. If a customer also contacts the PUC’s consumer assistance division to challenge a bill amount, CMP won’t try to collect that specific sum, but it will seek payment on the remaining balance.

The PUC also is encouraging customers to pay all undisputed portions of their bills.

During the deliberations, Commissioner Bruce Williamson laid blame for the problems largely on CMP’s management. He said the company was unprepared to launch its new billing system, and rushed it live after months of delays, at the same time it was offering early retirement to key workers.

“CMP has made a dismal mess of things,” Williamson said.

Williamson also defended the Liberty audit as being a necessary first step to providing the information needed for the PUC to now conduct a fuller inquiry, which is likely to take many months.

FOR CRITICS OF CMP, WELCOME NEWS

Reaction to the PUC decision by critics was generally supportive.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who co-chairs the legislative committee that handles energy matters, said he was pleased with the outcome and encouraged customers to continue to report errors.

“Despite CMP efforts to whitewash the recent audit,” he said, “today the PUC acknowledged the extremely serious audit findings that over 100,000 billing errors have occurred, that errors continue to occur, and that meter errors are resulting in doubling of bills for many Mainers.”

Barry Hobbins, Maine’s Public Advocate, has been frustrated about being barred from participating in Liberty’s review. Based on calls coming into his office, Hobbins had called for a full investigation last spring. His office has since hired its own consultant.

“It’s about time but never too late,” Hobbins said.

Asked how long he thought the process would take, Hobbins replied: “The leaves will be turning before this case finishes.”

For its part, CMP issued a statement saying the PUC’s approach of breaking out the issues into two cases seemed reasonable.

“We look forward to a full and fair examination of the issues raised by Liberty’s audit report,” the company said.

AUDIT FINDINGS: ‘SIGNIFICANT GAPS’

A PUC report released Dec. 20 detailed the audit finding, which concluded that skyrocketing electricity bills last winter cannot be blamed on CMP’s new billing and metering system, but the company made the situation worse with its poor response to a flood of customer complaints.

The audit, which cost $400,000 to conduct, identified “significant gaps” in the rollout of new billing software, noting that lapses in testing and training personnel resulted in errors that affected more than 100,000 accounts. But overall, the company’s meter system accurately records and bills customers, auditors said.

About 97,000 CMP customers’ bills increased last year by 50 percent or more in the three winter months from the same period a year earlier.

High bills last winter were the result of extreme cold and an 18-percent increase in the standard-offer electric supply rate, not systemic problems, the report concluded. But the problem was made worse by inadequate staff and management experience, leading to long delays responding to and resolving customer complaints, starting with the rollout of a new billing system in October 2017, and lingering through last summer.

After the release, CMP President Doug Herling admitted the company made mistakes, but said he hoped the Liberty report gave customers confidence that its billing and metering systems work.

The company has hired more staff, unveiled a new website and created a customer service guarantee offering a $10 credit for each late bill in response to the problems it experienced, he said.

CMP also is adding an explanation to customer bills this month, to alert people to why the energy supply portion of their bill will be higher this year.

In December, the PUC chose the best bid it had received for supplying electricity to customers who don’t contract with a power supplier, called the standard offer. That default rate kicked in Jan. 1, and is 13.7 percent higher than the current standard offer. It will on average add $6 a month to a home power bill.

Under Maine’s 19-year-old electricity restructuring law, utilities only distribute power. They don’t generate and sell it. But because the supply cost is collected as part of the CMP bill, many people blame the company for the increases.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

[email protected]

Twitter: TuxTurkel

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