Maine's Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is opening an investigation into Central Maine Power’s (CMP) winter disconnection policies.
That's after a Central Maine Power notice to a customer this month claimed that electricity service could be disconnected without express approval from the Commission. In most cases, CMP is barred from such winter shutoffs.
Rockland resident Faith Deane says she received what appeared to be a hand-delivered document from CMP in her mailbox Wednesday. The mailer says that to avoid disconnection the recipient should call CMP. At the bottom, it says "if you fail to contact us, we can disconnect your services during the winter months without approval" of the PUC.
"It's really terrifying to come home after work to think, gee we're in the middle of winter, we're going to get a huge snowstorm tomorrow. I've got two little kids and now they're threatening to disconnect my electricity without any approval. It's a horrible feeling," Deane says.
The PUC's rules expressly bar utility disconnections from November through the end of March without formal approval from the PUC in almost all cases. But a CMP spokesperson says that when the company makes repeated attempts to contact a customer who is in arrears, and when a company representative also visits the site and "deems" it to be unoccupied, a winter disconnection can go ahead without PUC approval.
PUC spokesperson Harry Lanphear says there must be evidence such as uncollected mail, unplowed snow, a lack of cars in the driveway or other signs of abandonment.
"That's when they can disconnect. And if they do, and they disconnect and somebody is really there, they have to reconnect immediately, because again, if it's occupied, it requires our approval," says Lanphear.
The mailer that customer Faith Deane says she received this week makes no mention of whether the premises had been "deemed unoccupied." She acknowledges her household is in arrears and that she has been out of touch with CMP for months. But, she adds, she and her family "definitely" live there - with four cars on the lot.
CMP says since November 15 it has served 1,000 CMP customers with notices of potential disconnection.
Update Jan. 22: CMP sent the following response on Thursday, Jan. 16:
CMP is following a standard, regulated and years-old communications procedure for customers who are behind in paying bills. Our primary goal is to get the customer to contact us to discuss the bill and overdue charges and agree to a reasonable payment arrangement and to identify any assistance programs to pay overdue charges. Every piece of communication emphasizes that the customer should call us.
Here is the process. We take the next step if the customer does not contact us.
- Present overdue amount from previous month on the monthly bill with a bill message that calls attention to the overdue amount
- Mailing overdue notices requesting the customer contact us
- At least two phone calls to the customer, leaving messages if the customer does not answer, asking the customer to contact us
- A visit to the premise to reach the customer and determine if the residence is occupied. We leave a packet of information for the customer indicating that we may disconnect if they do not contact us for a payment arrangement.
- If still no contact from the customer, we send a follow-up letter indicating that we may disconnect if the customer does not contact us to enter into a payment arrangement
If, after all of these points of contact, we have still not heard from the customer, we may disconnect a property we deem to be unoccupied without specific PUC permission. If the premise is occupied, CMP seeks MPUC permission.
CMP wants to offer every opportunity to create a payment arrangement that is as manageable as possible and identify assistance programs that helps customers maintain service and manage debt.