LEWISTON — City officials are seeing more apartments without power due to nonpayment, putting tenants and landlords at risk, David Hediger, deputy director of Lewiston's Planning and Code Enforcement, said Friday.
Lack of electricity makes a unit unsafe and is cause to condemn it, he said. "The tenant refuses to pay the electric bill. Often, we don't find out about it until later."
On Monday, an apartment at 27 Elm St. caught fire when the occupants left a candle burning to provide light after Central Maine Power Co. shut off the electricity for nonpayment of the bill. That rattled Mary Ann Norcross, who owns several Lewiston-Auburn apartment buildings, but not the one on Elm Street. She said it could happen to her properties, endangering all of her renters.
A couple of years ago, Norcross became aware that one of her tenants was having money troubles and faced having the electricity turned off. She called CMP, told them she owned the building and asked if they would let her know if they turned off the power.
"CMP said no, there's no way I'd be notified," Norcross said.
She argued that as the building owner, she's responsible for others living there. "What if the tenants decide not to tell me the power's being shut off and burn candles, and the candles fall or catch fire?"
Her argument didn't work.
"CMP told me the power being disconnected 'is between the customer and us.' I said, 'Wow.' ... My biggest fear is candles."
CMP spokeswoman Gail Rice said privacy laws prohibit the company from disclosing whether electricity is or was turned off.
"We need to work under the Public Utilities Commission rules," Rice said. Chapter 815 of PUC regulations forbids utilities to disclose to third parties, which would include landlords, Rice said. "It's a rule we need to abide by. We take all PUC rules very seriously."
Derek Davidson, director of the Consumer Assistance Division of the Maine PUC, said Norcross had raised a good question. However, the reason for the rule is to protect consumers, he said. Utilities cannot disclose, sell or transfer information about individual customers without that customer's consent.
"When a customer loses their power," Davidson said, "we want to give them a period to remedy it. Most customers do."
If a tenant does not share information about losing electricity, landlords "can be between a rock and a hard place," he said.
The simplest solution is communication, Davidson said. "Talk to your tenant. Tell them if there's a problem, let's work it out." If that doesn't work, landlords can include the electric bill as part of the rent, ensuring that the electricity will never be turned off, Davidson said.
Landlords are usually reluctant to do that, said landlord Carleton Winslow, who is vice president of the Maine Apartment Owners and Managers Association. When the CMP account is not in their name, some renters feel free to use more power, he said.
Not knowing about tenants losing power is a concern among landlords, "but not an epidemic," Winslow said.