The Maine Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday expanded the scope of the independent auditor's investigation into Central Maine Power's high bills. Credit: Lori Valigra

The Maine Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday agreed to expand the scope of the investigation into Central Maine Power Co.’s high bills.

Liberty Consulting Group of Pennsylvania at the end of May started an audit of CMP’s new metering and billing systems following hundreds of customer complaints about high bills.

In their ruling, PUC chairman Mark Vannoy and commissioners R. Bruce Williamson and Randall Davis agreed to expand the audit to include problems with customer communications. Some customers complained that CMP was either difficult to reach or didn’t answer their billing questions.

“We’ll expand the scope of the management audit to include customer service and do it in parallel with ongoing work,” Vannoy said.

Davis added that the concurrent audits of CMP’s billing, metering and customer service will “assure that no stone will be left unturned.”

All commissioners agreed Liberty Consulting has the expertise to conduct both types of audits.

CMP spokeswoman Gail Rice said the utility will provide Liberty Consulting with all the information it needs for its audit of customer communications. “We know that our customers look to us for reassurance when they have questions, and we have not delivered consistently on these expectations,” she said. “We have already taken some steps to improve our performance and provide the level of service our customers expect.”

She said those include reorganizing the customer service department; recruiting and training more people to handle customer inquiries through CMP’s Customer Relations Center, which should reduce hold times for customers; and providing enhanced training to all customer service staff.

Liberty Consulting conducted an audit of Emera in 2016 that resulted in a recommendation that the utility be held responsible for at least $2 million of a $13.6 million cost overrun for a new customer information system causing a spike in billing errors.

CMP installed a new billing system around the time of the severe October 2017 storm, after which customers complained about bills that in some cases were hundreds of dollars higher than normal.

The commission launched an investigation on March 1 into CMP’s metering, billing and customer communications after the regulator’s Consumer Assistance and Safety Division received 380 complaints by March 1. The complaints have continued to roll in. Another 209 public comments have been filed on the PUC’s website.

The PUC expects the first public report on metering and billing from Liberty Consulting within weeks, said Harry Lanphear, administrative director at the PUC. A draft report on billing, metering and customer communications is due in October.

Lanphear said PUC staff already had started looking into the communications complaints, but the independent auditor will move that investigation forward.

The initial contract for $369,820 will be amended with an additional $31,220 to include the additional work, Lanphear said.

Previously, CMP would have footed the bill for the audit. However on Monday, the Legislature overrode Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of LD 1729, An Act to Restore Confidence in Utility Billing Systems, which says the cost of the audit would fall to ratepayers unless the PUC finds that the utility has been imprudent, or rash.

If the audit finds CMP was imprudent, the PUC will have to fairly allot the cost of the audit to ratepayers and CMP shareholders.

Lanphear said that the audit of the customer complaints will start in about a week when the contract with Liberty Consulting is revised.

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