A group of residents that has been fighting Central Maine Power’s use of disconnection notices as a warning to customers with unpaid bills filed an appeal Tuesday with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, aiming to reinstate a pandemic-related ban on the practice.

The customers, associated with the consumers group CMP Ratepayers Unite, maintain that sending notices during the winter and at the height of the pandemic is “unreasonable” under Maine law.

The customers had unsuccessfully lobbied the Maine Public Utilities Commission to extend the emergency moratorium, which expired in November.  

 

In December, the group sought a temporary restraining order, but a Superior Court judge denied it and dismissed most of the group’s claims against CMP. 

CMP said it collaborated with the PUC and the state Public Advocate’s Office to make sure wording in its disconnection notices complies with state regulations.

In response to the latest challenge, the utility issued a statement saying, “CMP would encourage any customer who is challenged to pay their electricity bill to call us so that we can discuss an affordable payment arrangement and sources of public assistance available to them.”

By law, utilities are able to conduct debt-collection activities against customers who owe money, but their conduct is strictly governed by PUC rules. Most importantly, power to homes can’t be disconnected during the heating season, from Nov. 15 to April 15, except in unusual circumstances and only with PUC approval.

While CMP has not shut off power to any occupied residences this winter, it has issued thousands of disconnection notices to residential customers since the PUC’s moratorium was lifted on Nov. 1. In mid-January, the utility said about 5 percent, or roughly 32,000, of its 640,000 customers recently had received notices informing them that their balances were overdue.

Early this month, CMP Ratepayers Unite filed a complaint with the PUC to reinstate the ban on shutoff warnings. The request was denied.

Ending the moratorium in November, the commission said, would help customers limit the money they’ll owe, as their debt to the utility will grow without making repayment arrangements.

Allowing shutoff warnings also could reduce the likelihood that utilities will seek higher rates in the future to recover the cost of lost revenue and added collection activities, it said. That would push bad debt expenses onto all ratepayers.

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