Very disappointing. That’s what Maine’s public advocate, Barry Hobbins, had to say about the latest report by the Public Utilities Commission staff, which found no “systemic” problem behind Central Maine Power’s confidence-busting failure to bill its customers fairly.

In other words, there was no “systemic” problem behind tens of thousands of inaccurate bills sent out since the introduction of a new billing system in late 2017. There was no “systemic” problem behind the fact that industrial and residential customers didn’t receive any bills for months and then got back bills and shut-off notices. And there was no “systemic” problem behind the thousands of customer complaints, which included electric bills for businesses that had been shut down for the winter, and triple-digit increases for families who had not changed their behavior.

These and other billing failures were documented in a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation, and substantiated by packed public hearings around the state last summer.

To produce last week’s report, the PUC staff engaged in what they described as an investigation “without precedent” that reviewed more than 4 million billing records, and concluded, “Overall, there is simply no evidence of a metering or billing problem that is leading to erroneously high billed usage.”

We’re with Hobbins. This conclusion is very disappointing.

Because even if the billing system, known as SmartCare, operated flawlessly, CMP’s billing performance has been a mess, creating chaos in households and businesses around the state. Maybe the smart meters and billing software didn’t cause the problem, but the problem exists and it’s up to regulators to make sure that a monopoly like CMP takes customer service seriously, since there are no market forces to do the job.

The PUC staff did find fault with CMP management for mistakes made in its rollout of the SmartCare system, but even as the staff called for a small penalty against the company’s earnings, they recommended approval of a rate increase, which would result in the company getting more each month from Maine consumers.

The staff recommended a penalty of $4.9 million in earnings every year until the company can prove that it has met service benchmarks for 12 months, while also recommending an 8.1% increase in energy distribution rates for customers effective March 1. So even if the company saw its earnings cut over the billing case, the average ratepayer would see an extra $2.11 on their monthly bill.

Fortunately, it doesn’t stop here.

The three-member PUC will make a decision on all of the evidence, including analysis commissioned by the public advocate’s office, which found billing anomalies that can’t be explained by a cold snap and a previous rate hike, which the company and PUC staff says were behind the shocking bills during the winter of 2018. Because so many people were affected by the billing fiasco, the PUC will be under unusual pubic scrutiny. Will the commission be a watchdog protecting Maine consumers or a lapdog for a multinational energy company that tried to pull off a major technology transition on the cheap?

There is also a class action lawsuit forming that attempts to hold CMP accountable in court, even if regulators won’t. And there is a bill before the Legislature that would replace CMP (and Emera Maine) with a consumer-owned utility that would not take corporate profits.

The PUC’s staff report is not the final word. CMP’s billing problems will continue to be a matter of public concern, even after disappointing findings like this.

 

 

 


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