Central Maine Power Co. has agreed to set up a $500,000 fund, at shareholders’ expense, to help residential customers harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic pay their electricity bills.

The proposal is part of a settlement reached between the utility and the Maine Public Advocate’s Office regarding the way CMP notified customers about winter disconnection practices since 2015.

Allegations that CMP used incorrect or misleading information in those notices led to an investigation by the Maine Public Utilities Commission last winter. The proposed settlement, which CMP agreed to last week, is an outgrowth of that case and would need to be approved by the PUC.

The most direct consequence is that, in lieu of an administrative penalty, CMP would pay into a fund that would distribute money through the Energy Crisis Intervention Program administered by a state agency, possibly the Maine State Housing Authority.

As part of the agreement, CMP also would send a letter to customers who received improper disconnection notices acknowledging that it violated PUC rules. CMP would clarify that it can only disconnect customers between Nov. 15 and April 15 with approval of the PUC’s consumer assistance division. The company also would issue a public statement of clarification and apology.

Going forward, CMP would revise its customer communications regarding winter disconnects and be subject to an annual review of its practices by the state.

A spokeswoman for CMP parent company Avangrid issued a statement Monday about the proposed settlement.

“CMP regrets that customer communications addressing nonpayment and disconnections during the winter period did not reflect our commitment as a company to be clear and accurate,” spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said. “We have since taken the time to assess our communications on this and other topics to ensure they meet that goal. That work continues.”

She said CMP has been engaged with the other parties to the case to achieve a fair resolution, has signed the settlement stipulation with the Office of the Public Advocate and looks forward to a final decision from the PUC.

The proposed settlement doesn’t go far enough for Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham. Co-chair of the legislative committee that handles energy issues and sponsor of a bill that would replace CMP and Emera Maine with a consumer-owned electric utility, Berry said the PUC should treat the matter as a series of repeated violations by a multibillion-dollar corporation, and order a larger penalty.

The coronavirus pandemic has led the PUC to order all utilities to suspend disconnections until further notice.

The proposed settlement comes as the PUC is asking the state’s electric utilities and natural gas distribution companies to provide an accounting of how the pandemic is affecting the ability of customers to pay their bills.

“Rapidly rising levels of unemployment in Maine and other adverse effects of the coronavirus pandemic raise questions about customers’ ability to pay their utility bills, the effect of that and of closed businesses on utilities’ accounts receivable, and the potential for significant future rate adjustments from these circumstances,” the PUC said in an April 28 notice of inquiry.

The agency wants to see a summary of monthly accounts receivable for the past 13 months, among other things.

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