The Maine Public Utilities Commission said Thursday that it will decide next week if it will investigate whether Central Maine Power Co. has issued improper notices to utility customers threatening to shut off their power in winter months without state approval.

“We’re certainly very concerned about this if it’s true,” Harry Lanphear, the PUC’s administrative director, said in a telephone interview.

Lanphear said state law prohibits electric utilities from disconnecting customers from November through April without approval from the PUC. Disconnect notices are regarded by the utility as the last step in a process to collect payment from a customer whose bill is overdue.

Lanphear confirmed the PUC has learned of a complaint from at least one residential customer who alleges that CMP has threatened to cut off electrical service without the commission’s approval.

Commissioners will vote Tuesday in Augusta on whether to open a formal investigation into the complaint, which was brought to their attention Thursday by State Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, Lanphear said. Berry, chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology, filed a letter about the complaint with the commission.

“We’ve learned that CMP has sent information to a customer that their service could be disconnected without approval from the PUC,” Lanphear said. “We’ve received information about one customer, but there could be more. That’s one of the things that we could be looking into.”

Lanphear said that CMP has not contacted the PUC for permission to disconnect any customers either this winter or last.

On Thursday, the PUC opened a docket – a placeholder for a formal investigation – assuming one is approved by commissioners, said Catharine Hartnett, CMP spokeswoman.

Hartnett said the utility company has “no details about any of the underlying issues” regarding Berry’s complaint or a potential investigation.

She described a disconnect notice as the final step in a long process of attempts by the utility to collect an unpaid bill. CMP always tries to work out terms of a payment plan for customers who can’t pay a bill or who have fallen behind, she said.

Lanphear said CMP is authorized to disconnect service to a residence or business if it can prove the property is unoccupied, but he said winter disconnections are not allowed at occupied properties. The goal of disconnect notices is to push customers with unpaid balances to negotiate payment plans rather than to shut off their power.

Berry said he is aware of at least three CMP customers who received disconnect notices this month.

In his filing with the PUC, Berry provided a copy of a disconnection notice, dated Jan. 8, which warns the customer that service would be disconnected on Jan. 27 unless they pay off a balance of $568. Berry said the woman who received the notice lives in Harpswell with her husband, who is disabled and receiving in-home hospice service.

“She is scared, and told me she plans to pay in full, despite her outstanding dispute (over her bill),” Berry told the PUC. Berry said the couple’s electricity bill has tripled and stayed high for over a year.

“To pay this amount, she is opting not to pay her husband’s recent hospital bills,” Berry said.

“If the PUC does not intend to allow winter disconnections, why does it allow CMP to threaten customers in this way?” Berry asked.

Berry has become a vocal critic of CMP. Last year, he proposed establishing a consumer-owned utility to replace Emera Maine and Central Maine Power. He said a statewide publicly owned power company would save Mainers money and strengthen the power grid as climate change worsens.

Berry wrote an opinion piece that appeared in the Press Herald last summer in which he criticized CMP for allegedly levying unusually high bills, committing billing errors and for poor customer service.

Berry’s opinion piece prompted a rebuttal from CMP President Doug Herling, who called Berry’s piece inaccurate and inflammatory.

Correction: This story was updated at 7:18 a.m. on January 17, 2020 to clarify that CMP is allowed to issue disconnection notices during the winter, but it cannot actually shut off a customer’s power in the winter without state approval.


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