After receiving hundreds of consumer complaints over unexpectedly high bills, the Maine Public Utilities Commission will decide next week whether to open a full investigation of Central Maine Power Co.’s billing, metering and customer service operations.

The PUC is in the midst of a inquiry that could lead to a full investigation, called a management audit. It will meet on Tuesday to decide whether to pursue the management audit.

Harry Lanphear, the spokesman for the PUC, said the commission has gotten more than 1,000 complaints over bills.

“That’s a very large number of complaints,” Lanphear said, and while some were resolved, there are still hundreds of open complaints for which consumers feel there’s been no adequate explanation.

Complaints over bills spiked in December and January. The standard offer – which is the per kilowatt-hour price that most customers pay – increased late last year and a sharp cold snap over New Year’s weekend also caused electricity use to jump, but many customers said their bills increased beyond what could be explained by those factors.

Late last month, the PUC said it had decided to start an inquiry and it has filed a data request with Central Maine Power for information on about two dozen aspects of its electricity delivery operation, including usage, billing and the company’s new billing system, which was installed last year.

Lanphear said that if the PUC approves the management audit, the commission will likely hire a consultant or consultants with expertise in billing and use issues as well as how customer service operations handle complaints and questions.

The hiring process should take about two to three months and, once the consultant or consultants are hired, the management audit will begin. Lanphear said he couldn’t offer any estimate of how long the review might take.

Lanphear also said that while the number of complaints the PUC has fielded is large, it’s not unusual for regulators to do a management audit of a utility’s operations. He said the PUC did a management audit of Emera Maine, which provides electric service to much of northern Maine, two years ago when questions were raised about its customer service operations, power outages and other issues.

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