Central Maine Power’s top customer service representative defended the company’s bills Monday as accurate and again blamed the cold winter of 2017-18 and supply price hikes for thousands of high customer bills.

Linda Ball, CMP’s vice president for customer service, told WGAN radio that two reports issued last week confirmed that the utility’s bills were “predominantly” accurate, although one of the reports seemed to suggest problems.

The analysis, filed by BerryDunn consultants hired by the state’s utilities watchdog agency, was a blistering indictment that showed CMP did not follow industry best practices leading up to the launch of its SmartCare billing system in 2017, did not catch and fix a number of system defects beforehand and may not have the capacity to solve its billing system problems now.

The reports recommend a third party be hired to oversee testing of the meter and billing systems. From the authors’ analysis, “we believe the nature and extent of the issues we identified call into question the overall integrity of the system and its ability to provide accurate, timely and reliable invoices to CMP customers,” auditors said in their conclusion.

CMP is facing an investigation into its billing and customer service practices by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which also is weighing a rate increase for CMP’s electricity delivery.

Thousands of people complained that their bills jumped in late 2017, shortly after the utility rolled out its new billing system. An investigation by the Portland Press Herald found that CMP and its parent company cut corners, skirted best industry practices and failed to adequately test the new billing system that it launched in the fall of 2017. More than 97,000 customers received bills that were at least 50 percent higher than a similar period a year earlier following the launch of the new system.

Ball said on Monday that two reports issued last week found that the bills were mostly accurate, but she said one found the company had “presentment issues” in how the bills were formatted.

“The amount of kilowatt hours that we are billing them for is the right number of kilowatt hours, and that notwithstanding the issues that were talked about in the BerryDunn report, the dollar amounts that customers are being charged is correct,” Ball said on the WGAN Morning News Ken & Matt segment. “And I think those are two really important facts that are getting a little bit lost in all of the conversations about the audit report.”

Her response is the latest in a volley of comments and accusations over inquiries that have dogged the utility since its rollout of the new system.

Early last week, the PUC staff issued a report finding that cold temperatures and higher electricity supply rates in the winter of 2017-18 were to blame for complaints over high bills reported by thousands of customers. That analysis seemed to affirm a December 2018 investigation by the Liberty Consulting Group that faulted CMP for taking shortcuts in testing and training on its new billing system, but concluded that weather and high usage were to blame for high bills.

On Friday, the Public Advocate’s Office said its analysis indicated that CMP’s bills were plagued by errors in dates and energy usage. Its analysis spanned May 2018 to June 2019 – a different period than the PUC staff and Liberty reports reviewed. Ball characterized the Public Advocate’s findings as pointing out issues, which she said were later corrected, in how the bills CMP sends to customers are formatted.

CMP has until Oct. 16 to file a formal reply to the Public Advocate reports with the PUC.

CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett also said that the two reports looked at different sets of data, with the PUC staff examining hundreds of thousands of bills, while the Public Advocate’s analysis considered “a smaller universe” of information.

Hartnett also said that CMP pointed out some examples of errors on bills to the Public Advocate’s investigators, although she said the amount charged in those cases was accurate. CMP has fixed most of the problems about which it alerted the Public Advocate’s office, she said.

The public advocate’s study focused mainly on issues with CMP’s “smart meters,” which send electric usage information from a home or business directly to the electricity supplier. That means the utility no longer needs to send meter readers out to record electricity use, but critics contend the meters aren’t accurate.

Ball told WGAN that she understands public skepticism over smart meters and said CMP needs to do a better job explaining how they work and assuring the public that they are reliable.

The reports issued will factor into the PUC’s investigation of CMP’s customer service operations and could affect whether the utility gets all of a 10.65 percent increase in the rate it’s seeking on charges to deliver electricity to customers in southern and central Maine. CMP delivers electricity to homes and businesses in its service area and charges for that service, but its bills also include the charges for the electricity itself, which are generated by separate power supply companies.

Ball said the PUC staff report and the Liberty report looked at millions of bills and blamed higher bills on the cold winter and a price hike of 18 percent in Maine’s “standard offer” electricity, the state-regulated, energy-supply contract used by most electric consumers.

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