Maine’s Public Utilities Commission will soon decide whether to investigate a handful of complaints about Central Maine Power Co.’s service in rural parts of the state. The PUC’s Administrative Director Harry Lanphear said an answer could come by the end of the month.

In a document filed on January 29, attorneys and staff members of the state’s utilities watchdog formally recommended that the commissioners take on a case that would combine three 10-person complaints the commission received against CMP from ratepayers in Jackman, Caratunk and Dover-Foxcroft. Each of the towns filed similar complaints with the PUC from November to December 2018, citing increasingly longer and more frequent power outages in their communities as well as a host of other service deficiencies.

The Somerset County towns of Jackman and Caratunk, with populations of about 860 and 105 respectively, are on the fringes of the utility’s coverage area. Dover-Foxcroft, in Piscataquis County, has a population of roughly 4,075.

Residents have voiced concerns that the impacts of these outages are life-threatening.

“We’re concerned about families with small children and senior citizens and people who can’t afford generators and those with medical needs that require electricity,” said Deke Sawyer, a local reverend who filed the Jackman complaint. “The trend is not good. We’re trying to get out ahead of this before someone is hurt.”

CMP requested the state to dismiss each of the three complaints and stated that the problems are not as bad as some residents have claimed.

After reviewing over two dozen public comments and files across the trio of dockets, PUC staffers found three issues most concerning. PUC attorneys Charles Cohen and Katie Gray wrote that Jackman circuit data submitted by CMP shows an increase in outages worthy of questioning. In 2009, records indicate 15 outages that spanned an average duration of 3.96 hours. In 2018, there were 33 outages with an average duration of 6.35 hours.

Deke Sawyer, a local reverend who filed the Jackman complaint against CMP, said, “The trend is not good. We’re trying to get out ahead of this before someone is hurt.” Ratepayers in Jackman, Caratunk and Dover-Foxcroft filed similar complaints against CMP with the PUC from November to December 2018, citing increasingly longer and more frequent power outages in their communities as well as a host of other service deficiencies.

CMP’s staffing is also suspect, according to the PUC staff, which in addition to Cohen and Gray, includes advisers Faith Huntington, Derek Davidson and Michael Simmons. While the power company claims that two full-time workers are employed in the Jackman crew, which also serves Caratunk, Sawyer responded in a January 7 filing that “there has only been 1 full time worker in Jackman for many years and … in most situations there is only 1 CMP employee on site when repairing storm outages.”

Elizabeth Caruso, chair of the Caratunk Board of Selectmen, echoed this sentiment. “One line worker is insufficient for the workload of Jackman to Caratunk,” she stated. “He needs another worker in order to operate safely the bucket truck.”

Again citing records provided by CMP, the PUC attorneys noted that one of the Jackman positions was vacant for over nine months, from September 2017 to June 2018.

“It is unclear why the position was open for such a long period of time, and over the course of a season in which electric customers are particularly vulnerable to power outages and their effects,” they wrote in the recommended decision. “The Caratunk area is served by the Jackman personnel, so this data point raises questions for the service to both towns.”

Lastly, the PUC staff said that it could not verify that issues identified in line inspections in Dover-Foxcroft, as long ago as in 2015, were ever addressed by the power company.

“The long delay in addressing line inspection issues, and the open question of whether some of those inspection issues were addressed at all, needs to be examined,” reads the document.

The PUC is accepting public comments on the recommendation, via its website, until Friday. The commissioners typically meet on Tuesdays, and Lanphear said he anticipates them voting on whether to take the case at one of its remaining February meetings, on Feb. 12, 19 or 26.

“The comments will come in, and we will review all those comments and then look at the recommended decision and all the documents in the case, and then the commissioners will decide how to move forward,” Lanphear said. “They could approve the staff recommendation or they could not approve it and … beyond that, I would have to talk to one of our lawyers. Could they take two of the three? I don’t know what the options are beyond that, but the commission has pretty broad power to — they don’t have to agree entirely with the recommended decision. They could agree with all of it, part of it or none of it.”

 

QUESTIONING CONSOLIDATION

Sawyer said he has confidence that the commissioners will choose to investigate the utility.

“I am very optimistic,” he said. “I think the PUC is going to do what’s right here.”

Sawyer added that he does have “some reservations about lumping all three complaints together,” though. The Jackman complaint, which Sawyer penned, claims that CMP discriminated against Jackman ratepayers in refusing to fix problems they have raised because the area is too remote and populated by too few customers.

“We feel we’re being discriminated against, and that’s a key piece of our argument,” Sawyer said. “CMP repeatedly said in different ways that to do anything better than they’re doing now would cost too much money for too few customers, and that’s the basis of my discriminatory complaint — that they feel like we’re too few and too far between.”

Neither Caratunk nor Dover-Foxcroft took this approach, and the PUC attorneys did not explicitly address this line of reasoning in their recommendation for the commissioners. CMP declined the discrimination claim — but did not directly respond to it — in the December 27 response it filed urging the PUC to dismiss the Jackman complaint altogether.

“The complaint is without merit, in that CMP’s service to the Complainants has not been unreasonable, insufficient, unjustly discriminatory, or inadequate,” wrote Richard Hevey, CMP’s senior counsel.

Lanphear said he could not comment on why the PUC staff did not choose to include the discrimination component in its recommendation for the commissioners. The written document outlines the attorneys’ reasoning.

“The consolidation of these three dockets would serve the interest of administrative efficiency,” it says. “The three dockets involve similar allegations of increased frequency and duration of power outages and diminished workforce, and all three pertain to towns within close proximity to one another that are in some cases served by identical crews. Therefore, we find that the three dockets should be consolidated.”

Hevey had initially recommended this idea in CMP’s January 21 response to the Caratunk 10-person complaint. Catharane Hartnett, spokeswoman for CMP, declined to comment on whether this move will cause Jackman’s discrimination complaint to fall by the wayside.

“I’m not going to respond to that right now,” she said. “We’re still developing our response to the recommendation to consolidate the complaints and the recommended decision, and we’re going to do that by Friday.”

Earlier on Wednesday, she stated in a voicemail: “We believe that the staff made the right decision to consolidate them into one docket to streamline the process and possibly help customers get resolution more quickly, and we’ll continue to cooperate on regulatory proceedings.”

 

Meg Robbins — 861-9239
[email protected]
Twitter: @megrobbins

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