Describing Central Maine Power’s proposal to establish a $6 million compensation fund for customers as unprecedented, the Maine Public Utilities Commission said it will take up the matter with CMP’s request for a rate hike, which is expected to be addressed around the end of the year.

CMP has offered to put $6 million into a pool to compensate customers with disputed bills following the problematic launch of a new billing system in October 2017. In its wake, nearly 100,000 customers received erroneous bills, prompting thousands of complaints, several investigations and a pending lawsuit.

In an attempt to restore its reputation, the company submitted a proposal to regulators Wednesday as part of the PUC’s ongoing investigation into problems at the utility. In addition to allocating $6 million into a customer compensation fund, CMP wants to partner with Efficiency Maine to perform home inspections for certain customers with inexplicably high bills and has amped up its customer service division with new leadership and employees.

CMP’s proposal for the fund needs approval from the PUC, which regulates the utility and would administer the fund by setting up a process to determine who is eligible for compensation and for how much.

PUC Chairman Phil Bartlett said Thursday that CMP’s proposal is believed to be the first time a Maine utility has offered to set up a compensation fund for customers. The only similar situations, he said, have been a few instances when the commission ordered a utility to provide credits to customers.

Bartlett also said the PUC will take up the rate hike and fund proposal after it completes its investigation of CMP’s metering, billing and customer service issues, a process that is expected to be wrapped up by the end of the year. The compensation fund would be considered as part of CMP’s request for a $46.5 million rate hike, a proposal that has encountered opposition because of CMP’s customer service problems in handling complaints about higher bills.

“Currently, the commission anticipates deciding the metering and billing case by the end of December, and then will make a decision on CMP’s proposed rate request,” Bartlett said. “CMP’s filing yesterday will be considered, along with other data in the rate case, before the commission makes a final determination.”

Bartlett said the customer service investigation and rate hike “are on separate tracks” and the PUC recently decided to flip the order in which it would take up the two, choosing to complete the investigation before deciding on the rate hike proposal.

He said CMP’s compensation fund plan was outlined only in broad strokes in its filing this week and appears to give the PUC “broad discretion” in how to set up and administer the program.

Barry Hobbins, the state’s utilities watchdog, said he thinks the proposal for the fund is premature.

Public Advocate Hobbins said CMP should first acknowledge that its billing system had problems and the PUC should not connect the rate increase and the compensation fund.

CMP is “trying to dig themselves out of a deep, deep hole and unfortunately, there’s still quicksand in the hole,” Hobbins said. “They still have to accept this is an issue and a problem.”

Hobbins also said $6 million should be seen as an opening offer on the size of the compensation fund.

Gov. Janet Mills said she is “skeptical of any proposed solution” ahead of the PUC’s findings in its investigation of CMP’s billing systems and customer service operations.

“CMP owes Maine people complete and direct answers about their billing errors, why they happened, and how they are fixing them,” Mills said in a statement Thursday. Mills also noted that she has ordered the Governor’s Energy Office to be a participant in that investigation “to ensure that these issues are resolved and that CMP is held accountable.”

A CMP spokeswoman has said previously that the company understands the concerns before the PUC. The company intends to “cooperatively comply with any new procedural schedule the commission finds appropriate.”

CMP has acknowledged that it had problems implementing the new billing system, said Catharine Hartnett, spokeswoman for the company.

“We did not offer the level of service that customers expect, we were understaffed in customer service, bills were delayed and we needed more intensive training,” she said.

Hartnett also said that the company had not planned to seek a rate increase this year, but did so after the PUC requested a rate review as part of its study of the utility’s profit margin.

 This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. on Aug. 9 to clarify the status of the PUC rate review.

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