From Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel
February 9, 2019
By Tex Turkel, Portland Press Herald
As the electric utility generates hundreds of flawed bills daily, customers ask: ‘What the heck is wrong with this company?’
More than a year after discovering major problems with its new billing system, Central Maine Power is still generating inaccurate bills for many customers and in many cases not sending bills at all.
To this day, CMP is flagging more than 700 flawed bills a day that need to be examined manually to fix inaccuracies before they’re sent to customers. The electric utility has a backlog of roughly 6,000 faulty bills that require adjustments.
The utility’s failure to resolve its billing problems drew the ire of regulators, who threatened fines and other sanctions last week. The charges by the Public Utilities Commission’s consumer division were the latest hit for a company under fire by regulators, in court and in the Legislature.
CMP said last week it would respond to the issues raised by the PUC. And in an interview with the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald, CMP acknowledged that ongoing programming errors continue to generate flawed bills.
“The backlog for review is now under 6,000,” said Catharine Hartnett, CMP’s spokeswoman, “and we expect it will be addressed entirely by the end of March. With added staff, more training and experience gained, we are processing faster and preventing the queue from growing.”
But problems keep piling up. On Thursday, the company disclosed that it had erroneously told 62,000 customers they are getting refunds – a mailing intended only for 122 commercial customers.
But why did CMP have such extensive billing problems in the first place?
The cutover from an aging billing system to the new system, called SmartCare, had been planned for years and was in the works for months.
Who made the decisions leading to go live in late October 2017?
How are those decisions documented?
Was the company negligent in the way it rolled out and staffed the upgrade?
“We find ourselves frustrated by the fact that we’re over a year into this and we don’t have those answers for ratepayers,” said Barry Hobbins, Maine’s public advocate.
With key questions unanswered, a pending review this week of an eight-month independent audit ordered by the PUC and its conclusions is just a warm-up for lines of inquiry that are bound to stretch well into the year and maybe longer.
Some insight was gained by the audit released in December that pegged much of the blame for high bills on last winter’s cold spell and a jump in electric supply rates [same old line]. The Liberty Group audit, which cost $400,000 to conduct, said CMP’s new system functioned largely as planned, but defects in its operation generated an excessive number of incorrect bills.
This confounding assessment now has the PUC taking a deeper dive into the issue.
And based on an initial meeting Feb. 1 of formal participants in the case, the scope and complexity will be extraordinary. The volume of data being requested is so large that a CMP executive questioned whether the PUC’s online computer system could handle it and whether it would have to be provided by other means.
The PUC will wade into this sea of data Friday, when a top Liberty executive will come to the agency’s headquarters to walk through its findings and answer some questions. Liberty extracted more than 4 million records from CMP’s systems to create a master database to test usage information registered by the utility’s smart meters. The Public Advocate’s office, which has a team of lawyers working on the case – plus a private consultant it hired – is requesting that database.
CMP says it’s preparing a response to the independent audit to clarify the SmartCare implementation procedures and oversight.
“I just don’t get it,” Jennifer Gamage says about Central Maine Power’s billing data that doesn’t add up for her farmhouse in Dixmont. “I’m a chemistry major, and I should be able to do the math. I just want an accurate electric bill.”
‘I JUST WANT AN ACCURATE ELECTRIC BILL’
But to customers who worry every day about mounting electric bills that they can’t understand, what’s going on at the PUC is distant and abstract.
While renovating an 18th-century farmhouse last winter, Jennifer Gamage and her young family stayed warm with wood stoves and hauled water because the pipes were frozen. Despite essentially living off the grid, the Dixmont home drew a $130 electric bill in January, leading the Gamages to scrimp on lighting and whatever else they could think of. It felt like camping out.
“We called it CMPing out,” she said.
This winter, they’ve got a furnace, new appliances and an electric water heater. But her January kilowatt-hour totals from this year and last year are roughly the same. She also can’t understand why several $150-a-month payments she says she made to keep her service connected don’t show up online and haven’t been debited from her bank account. One thing is clear and troubling to her: The February bill says she owes $2,131.69.
“I just don’t get it,” she said. “Nothing adds up. I’m a chemistry major, and I should be able to do the math. I just want an accurate electric bill.”
In North Berwick, Pamela Parks was able to handle her mobile home’s electric bill by earmarking $123 a month to be deducted from her bank account and forwarded to CMP. Because it’s automatic, she hadn’t noticed that the money stopped being debited in October. This month, two things happened: She heard a voicemail from CMP telling her they had been working on a problem with her account. And she got a bill for $492 that’s due Feb. 25.
Parks said she tried to call CMP but was on hold for hours.
“My mom called me today and told me they didn’t get a bill in January 2019,” she said. “What the heck is wrong with this company?”
CMP doesn’t discuss individual customer accounts, but Hartnett said the company holds off on billing until inaccuracies are fixed.
“We believe it’s better to send an accurate bill,” she said, “than to send a questionable bill and risk later rebilling and cause greater customer confusion.”
DAUNTING REQUESTS FOR INFORMATION
But confusion persists. The search for clarity will be contentious and tedious, reflected in a mind-boggling battle for information that’s just ramping up in the PUC case.
For instance: A party to the case represents 11 customers who also are part of a group seeking a class-action lawsuit against CMP. One of their lawyers, James Belleau, attended the case conference to follow up on a letter he sent to the commissioners laying out the information he would be seeking. His request includes all documents and communications concerning CMP’s metering system; SmartCare billing issues, defects and customer complaints; efforts by CMP and its parent company, Avangrid, to fix problems; communications with various vendors and consultants, as well as those between CMP and its call centers. Each request is for various time periods, dating as far back as 2010.
Scrutiny has intensified over CMP’s billing problems. A pending review this week of an eight-month independent audit ordered by the Maine Public Utilities Commission is just a warm-up for lines of inquiry that are bound to stretch well into the year and maybe longer.
Belleau will seek to depose, or gather sworn evidence from, a dozen officials that range from CMP’s president, Doug Herling, to Avangrid executives with varied knowledge of the SmartCare rollout. He also wants the PUC to subpoena, or summon, entities that made the smart meters and developed and troubleshot the billing system and its software.
At the case conference, Belleau also said he’d like to hear from Scottish Power, which, like CMP, is a subsidiary of Spanish energy giant Iberdrola that had major problems when launching a new billing system. Chuck Cohen, a longtime PUC staff lawyer and hearing examiner in the case, told Belleau the PUC’s subpoena power doesn’t extend to Scotland. Belleau said he understood, but needed to report back to the judge who is considering the class-action lawsuit request.
Hobbins, a former co-chairman of the Legislature’s energy and utilities committee, said it was unusual – if not unprecedented – for a party seeking a class-action lawsuit in court to present a parallel case at the PUC.
CMP already is pushing back on some of the requests, citing confidential business and cybersecurity concerns. It’s seeking to block several specific bids for information by asking the PUC to issue so-called protective orders. Belleau last week filed paperwork in an attempt to block those motions and the PUC has set a meeting to consider the competing interests.
Belleau also is seeking to intervene in a related rate case at the PUC, in which customer service and communication problems related to the SmartCare cutover were split off from the main case by the commission.
Cases such as these are adversarial by nature, but lawyers steering the class-action request have struck a tone that’s uncharacteristically combative and personal. It has put state regulators on the defensive.
Sumner Lipman, a former state politician who focuses on personal injury and medical malpractice law, last month accused the consumer division staff at the PUC of favoring CMP, and the agency of lying to customers seeking help. The PUC’s chairman, Mark Vannoy, fired back in a letter in the Press Herald to say those charges were false and unsubstantiated.
At the recent case conference, Belleau requested that the PUC disclose any connections or conflicts of interest between the commissioners or hearing officer and CMP, Avangrid, Iberdrola or Scottish Power. Cohen said he found the implication offensive and told Belleau that if a conflict or an appearance of one existed, those officials would have recused themselves.
“That’s what the statute requires,” Cohen said. “And that’s what our principles require. Understood?”
A trial lawyer, Belleau said he just wanted to make sure there was an opportunity to confirm it before testimony was presented.
ARE STRUCTURAL CHANGES IN STORE FOR CMP?
The tactics of experienced civil litigators will add a new dimension to the case, as will the intervention of one of CMP’s chief political adversaries.
Seth Berry of Bowdoinham has intervened as a “concerned citizen.” But unlike other citizen intervenors, Berry is a state representative and the Democratic co-chairman of the Legislature’s energy and utilities committee. He’s also the lead sponsor of a bill to force the sales of investor-owned CMP and Emera Maine and set up a public power authority.
Customer anger and frustration over the billing problems have created fertile ground in which to plant the seed for a statewide, consumer-owned electric company. By becoming a formal party to the PUC case, Berry will obtain another forum in which to advance the agenda.
A consumer-owned utility sounds like a good idea to Jennifer Gamage, but it won’t do anything to sort out her electric bill.
As have thousands of other customers, Gamage has been in contact with CMP and the PUC in an attempt to resolve her dispute. At one point, she said, a customer service representative wondered if her family was taking enough showers, because more energy is required to keep reheating the electric water tank.
“And I just refuse to call them,” she said, “because it makes me so angry to talk to them about my bills and just get the many ridiculous excuses as to how I owe as much as I do.”
But Gamage said she knows she must at least figure out why her online payments aren’t going through, to chip away at that $2,131 bill. She’s afraid of being disconnected, once spring comes.
She said she’ll be calling CMP soon; she’s just waiting for her tax refund.
Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:
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