Numerous customers who have longstanding disputes with Central Maine Power Co. over sharp increases in their electric bills said they are unhappy with Thursday’s ruling by state regulators that there is no “root cause” for the widespread billing issue.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission said its review of the utility’s billing practices uncovered no systemic defect that led to thousands of customers receiving unusually high bills in the winter of 2017-18, shortly after CMP implemented a new billing system.

The company said the higher bills were the result of a record cold snap and an increase in electric rates charged by companies that generate power. The utility is responsible for delivering power to homes and businesses and also handles the billing for electric service.

The PUC imposed an earnings reduction on CMP, totaling $10 million over 18 months, for the company’s mismanagement of the new billing system. But it also approved a requested rate increase or grid reliability and customer service improvements that taken with the cut in earnings will translate to a roughly 2 percent net hike to the average residential customer’s monthly bill starting March 1.

That decision didn’t sit well with some CMP customers.

Jason Hall of Manchester, a filtration company safety coordinator who said his home electricity bills have quadrupled without explanation since a severe windstorm in October 2017, doesn’t think the PUC penalty will change anything. He said regulators merely want to look as if they are standing up to CMP, but aren’t forcing real change.

“As we see from PUC history, everything CMP wants, CMP will get,” Hall said. “They have a horrid ranking among other power companies in the U.S. for reliability and cost, and every year they get approved for more rate increases with no improvement of service.”

Before the 2017 windstorm, Hall paid $750 a year to power, but not heat, his 10-year-old, 1,100-square-foot house. He uses oil and solar power to heat his home and his hot water, and he has no swimming pool or home business. But since the fall of 2017, when CMP launched the new billing system, he said his annual payments to CMP have increased to $2,900.

Hall believes CMP knows how to fix its billing problems, noting that other companies with the same corporate parent – Iberdrola of Spain – have faced similar issues. But, he said, CMP doesn’t want to spend the money it knows it will cost to fix them. Regulators abroad have fined Iberdrola divisions much more than Maine’s $10 million, he said.

“In Maine, we keep getting forced to pay them more to feed a broken system,” Hall said.

Hall said he was most frustrated that the PUC investigation has yet to provide customers with any answers about why they are getting erroneous bills, why random amounts have been added to and subtracted from bills, and why people are being bullied or forced into payment arrangements without their consent.

Hall is starting to believe CMP customers like him, who believe they are being overcharged, will never get answers.

“I have basically accepted that I will have to pay these ridiculous bills even though the bills say I am using more power than my house is capable of using,” Hall said. “This makes no sense to me at all.”

Roger Bergeron of Pittston said he has faced a similar problem and has been unable to get a resolution to his issues with CMP. He said the power usage he was billed for at his newly built home tripled in the fall of 2017 after the new billing system went into use, despite no obvious change in energy use at the house, which was vacant during the week because he and his wife both worked in Boston.

Bergeron said cold wasn’t an issue because he heats with propane and all the appliances were new, so they weren’t responsible for a sudden spike in electric use. He said the PUC’s ruling left his problems unaddressed.

“They haven’t resolved my problem,” said Bergeron, whose bills jumped from about $80 to $235 a month before the electricity rates went up and pushed the bills even higher in early 2018.

“They strike out in every case with me,” he said of CMP. “It looks very simple in my case – something else was wrong, but I couldn’t get anyone at CMP to understand it. It was very frustrating.”

Bergeron said CMP has been largely unresponsive to him, sending out a crew once to check his meter, which the utility said was working fine.

He spoke with a CMP customer service representative last summer, months after he first complained, but there was no further contact. Bergeron said he pays his bills regularly, so perhaps CMP is concentrating on those with past-due charges before addressing issues with those who are current on their accounts.

Bergeron said he has since joined a lawsuit filed against the utility over billing disputes. Another suit was filed this week, alleging CMP improperly threatened to disconnect customers with past-due bills during the winter, although Maine law prohibits disconnections between Nov. 15 and April 15 without PUC approval. The PUC has opened an investigation into the disconnection threats.

CMP said this week that it would stop sending disconnection notices while it reviews the language in its letters to customers and said it hasn’t actually disconnected anyone in the winter for two years.

LuAnn Thibeau of Scarborough said she got a disconnect notice last month when she was five days late paying her bill. When she called CMP, Thibeau said customer service workers agreed she shouldn’t have received a notice, and no one could explain why it was sent.

“For what everyone is going through, I think there is a problem with their billing system,” she said.

Thibeau doesn’t understand why the PUC granted any rate increase with many of those billing issues still unresolved.

“I’m not comfortable with a rate increase when I’m seeing my bills go up anyway,” she said.

Kara Hodgdon, a working mother of four in Sanford, said she felt “frustrated and defeated” by the PUC’s decision.

“I think it’s crap,” she said. “The fine is more of a formality than anything else. Without a doubt, CMP will find a way to make their customers take on the burden of that dollar amount. It is absolutely outrageous that the rate increase was approved.”

Hodgdon, a criminal court clerk, is disputing the amount of her electricity bills. In 2017, her bills averaged $150 to $175 in the cooler months and $300 to $400 in the summer, when they she used more electricity for a pool and an air conditioner. She said her cold-weather bills are now $250 to $350, and her summer bills have hit $675 a month.

Hodgdon didn’t pay her bills while she was disputing them, believing that if she did it would be tantamount to saying the high usage was accurate, and now she and her husband owe CMP about $4,300. The payment plan she was offered is forcing her to pay $500 a month in current and catch-up fees.

Hodgdon said her family can’t afford that to pay that much each month.

“Maybe if I took a day off from work and did nothing but make calls to CMP and the PUC I could get some sort of relief and figure some of this out, but I don’t have any paid time off currently,” she said. “I’m exhausted … there are only so many hours in a day.”

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