The usage is the usage.

That cryptic phrase has emerged as a mantra for beleaguered customer service managers at Central Maine Power. It also sums up the major point of contention, nearly two years after CMP launched a new billing system that triggered thousand of complaints, protracted investigations at the Public Utilities Commission and a pending class-action lawsuit.

And over that time, despite intense scrutiny and accusations from customers and critics, CMP has stuck to its story – most high bills ultimately were a result of customers using more power than they realized.

The usage is the usage.

Three days of recent technical hearings and expert cross-examination at the PUC of a panel of CMP customer service managers failed to uncover an alternative explanation. Some of that questioning came from  Phil Bartlett, Maine’s newly appointed top utility regulator. In a recent interview with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Bartlett conceded that he hasn’t seen any evidence so far to indicate there were systemic, technical problems with CMP’s smart meters.

A smart meter in Saco. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I have no illusions that there’s a magic bullet here,” he said.

So unless new evidence surfaces, a case in which literally millions of points of data have been examined appears to be moving to a climax in December that many will find inconclusive at best and infuriating at worst.

In large part, the PUC has relied on the results of an audit done by Liberty Consulting Group, which found that CMP’s smart meters for the most part functioned correctly. At the same time, Liberty found that CMP managers took shortcuts and failed to adequately test its $56 million SmartCare billing system, an accusation CMP denies. Those shortcuts, along with other instances of mismanagement and customer service deficiencies, were documented by a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation published in June. The newspaper also showed how delayed and incorrect bills had significant financial and emotional impacts on customers, some who found themselves owing thousands of dollars.

Through it all, CMP continues to assert its meter and billing systems are functioning properly. It acknowledges falling down on customer service at a critical time, but says customers who were overcharged have had, or will have, their accounts reconciled. CMP acknowledges roughly 15,000 customers were overbilled by $548,000 through April of this year.

But these steps have failed to fully explain ongoing customer complaints about high usage, and associated high bills. With the PUC apparently finished with its technical examination of meters and billing software, attention has turned to a second round of testing now being done for the Maine Office of Public Advocate.

The public advocate is in the process of testing a sample of high-bill accounts brought to light since May 2018, the period after Liberty finished its PUC audit. Those findings are expected in late August. But as of today, a root cause, direct connection between the meter and billing systems and high-use complaints hasn’t been proven.

“What we get at the end of the month is going to tell us a lot,” Bartlett said. “I guess we’ll learn one way or the other. Then the question becomes, what do we do about all these (customer complaint) cases that are hanging out?”

In an unprecedented move three weeks ago, Bartlett and the other two commissioners promised in an op-ed in the Maine Sunday Telegram that they would “take action,” that they had heard loudly and clearly CMP customers were frustrated and angry.

By law, public utilities must provide “safe, reliable and adequate service.” If they don’t, they can be fined, or have their revenues and rate of return on investment cut. They can be ordered to take specific steps to fix service deficiencies and to refund customers. Those remedies are in play in a related, parallel PUC case that’s examining CMP’s rates.

GRILLING CMP

The challenge of getting to the root cause of high-use complaints was apparent during questioning late last month at the technical hearings, which are under-oath question-and-answer sessions between the PUC commissioners, its staff and parties to the case.

At one point, the senior counsel for the Office of Public Advocate, Liz Wyman, referenced the 3,000 high-usage complaints referred by the PUC to CMP. She asked if it’s CMP’s position that all these customers complaining about receiving double and triple their typical bills are simply wrong.

Vicky Kelsall, vice president for customer service at Avangrid, noted the audits conducted during the winter of 2018: “Well, I think the usage is the usage. I think that the bills are accurate.”

Wyman persisted, wondering why these problems continue 19 months later. Are these customers simply mistaken? she asked.

Kelsall, a former customer service manager at Scottish Power, which like CMP is a subsidiary of Spain-based Iberdrola and which also suffered fallout from a troubled billing system launch, said the meters, reading process and billing system weren’t to blame.

“We’ve not found any indication that usage is driven in a different way,” she said. “So we can only assume that it is down to how customers are consuming energy.”

Wyman also pressed CMP’s management on why it didn’t conduct an analysis of the high-use complaints, a way to trace them back to their source and look for a trend or pattern. CMP’s managers responded that would involve an actual visit to the home, which is not typically done for billing complaints. Such home visits now are being contemplated for future complaints, under a proposed partnership arrangement with Efficiency Maine, the state’s quasi-public agency that oversees conservation spending.

CMP’s managers added that they have found many of the complaints voice broader concerns, such as estimated bills, and not purely high bills. Over the phone and using billing data, representatives performed a “deep dive” into each problem account. Through this and other lines of inquiry, the company found themes of concern. But except in instances where customers installed a heat pump or said they used a space heater, they failed to uncover patterns responsible for high use.

The company also continued to downplay errors it has made. For instance: The PUC’s hearing examiner, Chuck Cohen, asked about the number of customers impacted by a billing error that CMP estimated at 51,000, but later revised to 109,570. That number included presentation errors on the bill, but Linda Ball, who formerly oversaw smart meters for Avangrid and is assuming a new CMP position as vice president for customer service, said the company doesn’t consider presentation errors, which could include how the bill is formatted, to be bill errors.

“Would you agree that presentation errors can be important with regard to customers’ understanding of their bills”? Cohen asked.

Ball replied that they could be, depending on what the error is.

At one point, Bartlett asked Ball about how customer service reps handle phone complaints about high usage.

“So one of the things that I heard and have seen in press reports and then heard again today is that usage is usage,” he said.

But a customer doesn’t view it that way, he went on, “which suggests to the customer that they must be crazy or that they are not to be believed.”

Ball responded that reps are trained to walk customers through their use patterns and to inventory all their electric appliances, to come up with what their usage should be.

“It’s not a right or wrong question,” Ball said, ” because I think what we’re saying is that our understanding is the usage is being recorded accurately and being communicated accurately to the billing system.”

OTHER ACTIONS

While CMP continues to maintain that the usage is the usage, it also has devised a strategy aimed at mollifying customers with unresolved balances.

In a recent filing at the the PUC, the company has proposed establishing a novel, $6 million compensation fund, among other measures, to resolve the ongoing dispute through state regulators rather than the courts. CMP stipulated in the proposal that the $6 million would be paid in lieu of financial penalties recommended by the PUC’s staff for poor customer service.

Bartlett said it’s unclear what authority his agency has to administer such a fund and decide who should get how much money. It’s looking into the legal issues and won’t make any decision until after the billing probe and rate case wrap up in December.

Meanwhile, lawyers representing customers seeking a class-action lawsuit against the utility say CMP’s proposed $6 million compensation fund is just a tactic to avoid paying out what they estimate to be $140 million in damages.

So unless the public advocate’s testing reveals a systemic technical problem, unless the PUC is able to “take action” before year’s end in a way that satisfies customers and their advocates, it’s likely trial lawyers will press for court action in 2020.


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