State regulators got an earful Tuesday night from 75 consumers who vented their frustration and anger with Central Maine Power Co. over its billing and customer service practices.

CMP customers told the Maine Public Utilities Commission that their bills doubled or tripled after a new billing system was installed more than 18 months ago and they got no clear answers when they sought an explanation from the electricity distribution company, which serves southern and central Maine.

“CMP is the only bill I pay that I don’t know what I pay for,” said Heather Payson of Cape Elizabeth. “The lack of transparency is very frustrating.”

Many said that the utility hasn’t earned the rate increase it is seeking. The company has filed to get a rate hike of about $46 million, or more than 10 percent.

David Remick of Eliot speaks during Tuesday’s PUC hearing on CMP’s problems. “CMP’s request for a 10.65 percent increase in delivery rate is outrageous,” he said. “In all my years of employment, I’ve never, ever got an 11 percent raise.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Tuesday’s hearing at the Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine was the first of three the PUC will hold to get input from the public. The PUC is investigating CMP’s handling of a switchover to a new billing system more than 18 months ago that, thousands of customers said, resulted in sharply higher bills.

The PUC also is looking into how CMP’s customer service staff handled complaints and questions over those bills. Many of the speakers on Tuesday said it fell short.

Some said they were promised call-backs that never came, others said it often took as long as an hour on the phone on hold before they could get through to a person.

“Their customer service is horrific,” said Michael Adams of Windham. “I don’t see myself as a customer or a ratepayer – I’m a victim.”

Commissioners and the PUC staff listen to testimony from the public during the hearing Tuesday on CMP’s billing and customer service problems. Left to right are Randall Davis, Bruce Williamson, Chuck Cohen, Phil Bartlett and Katie Gray. One CMP customer told them, “Your hands will be as guilty as theirs if you allow” the rate increase that CMP is seeking.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Others said no matter what the reason for the problems, the PUC should turn down the requested rate hike.

“There’s obviously something wrong, billing-wise or meter-wise,” said Tasha Dolce of Alfred. “Your hands will be as guilty as theirs if you allow it.”

The new chairman of the PUC said regulators are as worried as CMP customers about the company’s billing practices, and how it handled callers seeking answers.

“We share the concerns of customers who are dissatisfied with the response of CMP,” Phil Bartlett said.

Last month, a Portland Press Herald investigation found that CMP bungled the rollout of the new billing system, mismanaged customer responses and misled the public about the scope of the problems. At one point, CMP had sent out more than 100,000 inaccurate bills. A few months after the new billing system was launched, 97,000 customers received bills that were 50 percent or higher than the same three-month period a year earlier.

The Press Herald reporting revealed that CMP and its parent company had taken shortcuts on testing and skirted industry best practices with the launch of its SmartCare billing system. The ensuing complaints have prompted three separate investigations and a lawsuit.

Some on Tuesday blamed CMP’s “smart meters,” which the company has installed and can be read remotely rather than having to send meter-readers out to gather usage information for billing. Adams, the Windham customer, said he had CMP replace his meter with an older analog meter and his usage, and bills, have reverted to what they were before the smart meter was installed.

PUC Chairman Phil Bartlett speaks at Tuesday’s hearing in Portland. He said regulators are as worried as CMP customers about the company’s billing practices.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Many speakers at the hearing said the problems show that CMP doesn’t deserve a rate hike. The PUC staff has recommended that the commission cut about $30 million from the requested increase, including a reduction of CMP’s annual earnings of about $4 million to $6 million to stay in place until the utility meets certain customer service standards.

The company said it is seeking a rate hike because of increasing operating costs and to improve the reliability of CMP’s distribution system.

Bartlett said hearings like Tuesday’s are “critical” to gathering information for the investigation and the rate hike request. The PUC is expected to rule on the rate hike in October and finish its investigation of customer service and billing issues later this year.

Before the hearing, members of the Maine Small Business Coalition called on the PUC to revoke CMP’s license and either force the sale of the utility to another company or turn it into a consumer-owned operation.

“CMP has got to go,” said state Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham. Berry has been a vocal critic of the company, and submitted legislation to have the distribution of electricity in southern and central Maine taken over by a consumer-owned utility. That bill has been bound over for further study.

Bartlett said the PUC will put out a request for proposals for consultants to help with the study. The report to the Legislature is due in February.

Rob DuPaul, a contractor from Sanford, said sharply higher electric bills contributed to his bankruptcy. CMP suggested that inefficient appliances, cold weather or someone stealing electricity caused the higher bills, but DuPaul said none of those was valid for bills that nearly tripled the winter before last.

“They keep raising the rates with no accountability,” he said. “It’s time for CMP to stop cheating Maine.”

The PUC will hold two more public hearings, Thursday in Farmington and Monday in Hallowell.

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