It’s been almost a year and a half since Central Maine Power Co. President Doug Herling, his once-proud utility’s reputation hemorrhaging, taped a TV ad that amounted to a 30-second mea culpa.

“When you raised issues and concerns, we didn’t respond as well as we should have,” a contrite Herling said at the time, referring to the company’s botched rollout the previous winter of a new billing system. “And we’re very sorry about that.”

Uh-huh.

Fast forward to last month, when Herling went on Facebook to announce the rollout of a new campaign called “Power On.”

“We developed ‘Power On’ because we understand that we need to do a better job for you, our customers,” Herling said. “And ‘Power On’ is our road map to do just that.”

Right.

Now this week we have Herling here, there and everywhere, trying to douse the latest in CMP’s never-ending rash of public-relations meltdowns: recent delinquency notices warning people that CMP will soon cut off their electricity, despite a state utility rule that says the company can do nothing of the sort during the winter months.

On Wednesday, Herling sat down with Don Carrigan of News Center Maine (WCSH-TV). The seven-minute interview at times felt more like a trip to the principal’s office.

“When this first blew up a few days ago … what did you think?” Carrigan asked, referring to the disconnect notices.

“I was horrified with this, because I hadn’t been as focused on the detailed stuff that goes out the door, and when I did, I saw the changes that we need to make,” Herling replied. “And I make a pledge that we won’t stop until we make those changes and do it right.”

On Thursday, in an interview with Portland Press Herald reporter Tux Turkel, Herling similarly promised, “My No. 1 job is to win back the trust of customers.”

As Yogi Berra once said, it’s like déjà vu all over again.

The latest brouhaha is proof positive that for all its damage control, all its assurances that the customer really does come first, CMP remains as mired in its own incompetence as it was when it went into this tailspin with the billing fiasco in late 2017.

We start with a simple premise. Under rules promulgated by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, an electric utility cannot disconnect power to an occupied residence between Nov. 15 and April 15 without first getting approval from the PUC. CMP itself says that over the past two winters at least, no residential accounts have actually been disconnected. Not one.

The so-called “winter disconnect” rule has been around for years. CMP knows that. Yet, at least until now, it’s continued to send out notices to delinquent customers under the bright red heading “Urgent – Disconnection notification” along with the warning, “Unless you take action, your electric service is scheduled for disconnection on (fill in the fast approaching date) or within 20 business days of that date.”

On Tuesday, the PUC voted 3-0 to formally investigate whether the notices constitute a rule violation – particularly since the PUC last winter warned CMP to include in its notices the fact that no residential customer’s power can be cut without prior PUC approval.

CMP failed to comply with that directive, plain and simple. Since November, the company has issued 1,000 disconnection notices without including the highly relevant “winter disconnect” disclaimer.

If I were a betting man, I’d wager that CMP left the “we can’t really do this” clause out for one obvious reason: They wanted to scare the bejesus out of those who received the notices. If that’s what it takes to get their money, so be it.

This is not to defend people who not only don’t pay their power bill but also fail to respond to CMP’s repeated attempts to set up a payment plan. After all, the $7.7 million in unpaid bills that CMP wrote off in 2019 ends up being covered via higher rates charged to those customers who pay on time.

But that doesn’t excuse a practice that is as deceptive as it is just plain wrong. Using empty threats to frighten people into paying up pronto may improve the bottom line for CMP, but at what cost to the cash-strapped, elderly Mainer who sees “disconnect” on the ominous notice and “0” in the checkbook and lies awake at night worrying about freezing to death?

Herling’s latest promise to do better, while predictable by now, hardly mitigates the company’s culpability here. In his interview with News Center Maine’s Carrigan, he said, “Over the past couple of days I have focused on looking at the communications that we send out. And I’ll be honest with you, personally I find some of the communications unacceptable.”

Note the use of the phrase “over the past couple of days.” Shall we infer that before now, CMP’s top executive had not a clue that his company was routinely sending out scare letters that fly in the face of state law? And if he didn’t know this was standard operating procedure, why not?

More than once over the past two years, Herling and other CMP officials have reminded us of the company’s rich heritage dating back more than a century. Deluged by a cascade of self-inflicted crises, they direct our attention back to a time when the CMP brand was indeed exemplary, a Maine-grown company that, while for-profit, could always be trusted.

No longer. Now owned by Connecticut-based Avangrid, which in turn is owned by the Spanish multinational corporation Iberdrola, CMP’s very future as a private utility is increasingly open to question.

Support for a proposal by state Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, to replace Maine’s electric utilities with a nonprofit, consumer-owned power authority grows stronger with each sparking headline about this or that CMP fiasco.

And Gov. Janet Mills’s thinly veiled references to CMP in her State of the State speech on Tuesday – she asked for lawmakers’ help in ensuring that outside companies that run Maine’s utilities “are answerable to Maine, not to Spain or some other foreign country” – are a bright red flag to CMP and its corporate parents that their reservoir of political goodwill in Maine is fast running dry.

Little wonder that CMP is, according to J.D. Power, the least liked utility in the country. The more it promises brighter days ahead, the more its credibility flickers.


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