Maine’s Public Consumer Advocate is calling on state regulators to launch a full review of Central Maine Power’s (CMP) billing complaints and discrepancies.
Attorney Barry Hobbins says he cannot adequately represent the interests of affected ratepayers, because of the limited scope of the inquiry that’s underway.
Hobbins says because the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has not opened a formal case and has instead structured the probe as an inquiry, he does not have the authority to ask CMP directly about the billing issues.
“This is like fighting with one hand behind your back,” Hobbins says.
Hobbins says that in a regular case or suit, the advocate can act as an intervenor, but that’s not allowed in an inquiry.
The ability to defend and represent the ratepayer really cannot be fully exercised, and think that is what disappoints me,” he says.
Hobbins says that his office has been reviewing documents that the PUC has requested from the company and, from what he has read, they support the need for a more comprehensive review.
Last fall, as the state was hit with a major storm that knocked out power to more than 400,000 CMP customers, the company switched to the new billing system, and it did not work as planned. Some customers on auto pay were bumped off, other customers saw major increases in usage, with no corresponding cost increase. Some using a budget payment plan to smooth out their payments were dropped, and others saw their bills more than double.
“The public should have a voice,” says Patrick Milligan, member of the group CMP Ratepayers Unite. “The public should have their eyes on these documents. There should be transparency. Central Maine Power is the only way most people can source their electricity.”
CMP Ratepayers Unite has a membership of 3500. Milligan says the group has written the PUC asking it to upgrade the case so that interested parties, including the Public Advocate, can formally intervene. He says there are a lot of unanswered questions around the CMP billing issues, in part, he says, because the PUC has not asked them.
Many customers are worried that the problems will persist.
“They plan on their bills, and there is so much uncertainty of whether this may happen again, or whether CMP has been forthcoming about certain problem or issues,” Milligan says.
Milligan says the PUC should allow full airing of the issues, and that confidential documents now should be made public.
Gail Rice, a spokesperson for CMP, says the company is opposing a blanket move to redact documents for public release. She says the company estimates that it would take one employee ten weeks of work to redact personal, identifying information from the more than 10,000 pages of documents that have already been filed and the thousands more that are expected to be introduced. Rice says the PUC is following its normal procedure before deciding whether a full case is warranted.
“The Commission’s own administrative procedures call for a summary investigation to be completed first, and elevating that to a full adjudicatory proceeding would be the Commission’s call if it found reasonable grounds to do so,” Rice says.
Meanwhile, Rice says CMP is providing the Public Advocate with access to the documents it is filing with the Commission. The PUC has chosen a private firm to conduct a forensic audit of CMP as part of its fact finding, which may also influence the PUC’S decision on whether to open a full case allowing intervention.
Milligan's title was updated 10:00 a.m. Friday