Public Advocate Barry Hobbins is asking the Public Utilities for permission to do new testing of Central Maine Power’s billing system. Tux Turkel/Staff Writer

The state Public Advocate Office wants to conduct a new test of Central Maine Power’s error-prone billing system, meant to detect patterns among customers who have complained about high bills.

In a filing late Monday at the Public Utilities Commission, Public Advocate Barry Hobbins seeks permission to test 1,369 accounts that led to complaints about high bills since May 1, 2018. These accounts were culled from a list of 3,271 complaints that CMP forwarded from the PUC’s consumer division. In addition, Hobbins wants to test other complaints about high bills referred to CMP since April 30.

The filing came a day after a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation revealed how CMP managers misled the public and mismanaged the 2017 launch of a trouble-plagued billing system.

These dates were chosen because they pick up where an audit performed for the PUC by Liberty Consulting Group left off in April of 2018. The audit found that overall, despite some technical issues, the digital smart meters were producing accurate bills.

The new testing would focus on newer complaints and compare information stored from customers’ meters to usage tallied on their bills.

The company said it is providing the information sought by the public advocate and believes that the new test will confirm the findings of the previous audit – that the billing system is working as intended.

“CMP welcomes the additional look at the system in hopes that consistent answers will help the public regain trust in the company and its system,” company spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said in an email Tuesday night.

The public advocate’s request would further a technical line of inquiry into why so many people complained about higher than expected bills, after CMP rolled out its new SmartCare billing system in October 2017.

Customers began receiving erroneous bills within days of CMP’s switch to the new system. More than 100,000 customer bills were inaccurate, according to CMP’s data. But the number is likely to be higher, because 97,000 of the company’s roughly 620,000 customers received bills at least 50 percent higher that winter than for the same three-month period a year earlier.

Sumner Lipman, a lawyer for customers who have joined a lawsuit seeking class-action status, estimates that the number of customers who were overcharged is closer to 300,000.

And while the customer numbers are in dispute, so are the root causes.

“I’m not convinced we’ve rooted out the issues that caused the initial problem,” Hobbins said Tuesday. “Whether we find it or not is another story. But we owe it to ratepayers to make every effort to get to the root of the problem, and if so, determine if it has been solved and not let it happen again.”

Attempts to understand the technical reasons behind the billing meltdown parallel inquiries into whether the incident could have been prevented in the first place.

The Press Herald’s investigation documented that officials at CMP and its parent company cut corners, skirted best industry practices and failed to adequately test a new error-prone billing system. The failure of the $56 million billing system reveals a pattern of corporate mismanagement and unfulfilled customer promises spanning much of this decade.

On Monday, various state leaders weighed in on the findings, including Gov. Janet Mills, who called CMP’s failure to deal with the problems “unacceptable.”

Hobbins said the testing he proposes could further demonstrate that CMP failed to follow proper protocols in launching the billing system and that management acted imprudently. If the PUC ultimately concludes that CMP’s actions weren’t prudent, it could exact financial penalties against the company and its shareholders.

CMP apologized for its response to customer complaints but defended the process it followed in developing and launching SmartCare.

After complaints about bills surfaced in the winter of 2018, the PUC launched a series of investigations. One involved a highly technical audit of the metering and billing system by the Liberty firm.

Liberty tested a small, statistical sample of 60 of the 640,000 digital smart meters installed by the company since 2010. It did find what it called an anomaly in most of the General Electric-made meters that led to billing errors and faulted CMP for not fixing the problem. However, Liberty determined this anomaly didn’t lead to inaccuracies on a system-wide scale.

But because complaints have continued well into 2019, the Public Advocate’s Office wants to test billing accuracy for some of the accounts that generated more recent complaints. It plans to use names on a list requested in one of the PUC cases by CMP Ratepayers Unite, a citizen group of customers formed around the billing problems.

Lauren Loomis, a spokeswoman for the group, said she has evidence to suggest the meter issues identified by Liberty are broader and were exacerbated by the new billing software. She hopes the public advocate’s test will confirm this.

If the PUC gives Hobbins the go-ahead, the testing could take at least eight weeks. It would look for anomalies between information from the meters that’s temporarily stored and the amount of usage recorded on the bill. Information for two billing periods would be examined. If a problem is discovered, further information, such as hourly usage readings, would be used to attempt to identify the source of the anomaly.

Liz Wyman, senior counsel for the Public Advocate’s Office, said testing would eliminate two variables identified as contributing factors by both Liberty and CMP – a winter cold snap and an increase in electric supply rates in 2018. Focusing on a small group with continuing problems would eliminate other variables, she said.

“Eighteen months out, there are still a significant number of individuals complaining of high usage,” Wyman said. “So what could the nature of the problem be, this far out?”

 


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