Holly Kozlowski of Saco testifies at a Public Utilities Commission hearing in Portland on Tuesday night about Central Maine Power billing issues. "I'm shaking with outrage," Kozlowski said.

About 30 witnesses and as many onlookers showed up Tuesday night in Portland for a chance to testify before regulators about high bills, customer service problems and a requested rate increase by Central Maine Power Co.

Only a handful of protesters showed, including two holding a sign calling for CMP to be replaced by a consumer-owned utility company.

Most witnesses complained about faulty smart meter readings, escalating electric bills, erratic bills ranging from $300 one month to $800 or $1,100 in other months, long call hold times or no response at all from CMP’s customer service and poor electric service from CMP. They also said CMP should not be rewarded for poor service with a rate rise.

“I still owe CMP $4,000 and counting,” said Rob DuPaul, a contractor from Sanford who saw his CMP bills keep rising after he got a smart meter. “I can’t afford that.”

DuPaul said in the past couple years he went through a divorce, had to pay child support and struggled with debt. He said he tried to sell his house to avoid bankruptcy, but claimed the high electric bills scared off prospective buyers. Unable to sell his house, he filed for and then came out of bankruptcy.

His said his bills started at $100 to $150, but continued to rise by about $200 to $400 a month. In one month he received a $1,500 electric bill.

“It’s time for CMP to stop cheating Mainers,” he said.

Holly Kozlowski, who moved from Connecticut to Saco five years ago, said she was “shaking with outrage” with her own experience with high bills and hearing the complaints of other witnesses.

“The more I listen to these people, the more the rage is burning inside me,” she said. “How did it get to this point? Who is keeping watch?”

CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said earlier Tuesday that, “CMP views the upcoming public witness hearings as an important procedural component of the ongoing PUC investigations.”

The hearing was the first of three to be held by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Speakers who were sworn in have their testimony entered into the official commission record to be considered in resolving the billing and rate cases. The commission is expected to rule on the request for higher rates in October, and on the billing and customer service issues by the end of the year.

Commissioners R. Bruce Williamson and Randall Davis and new commission Chairman Philip Bartlett attended Tuesday’s hearing and plan to attend the other scheduled hearings. Subsequent hearings are scheduled for Thursday at the University of Maine at Farmington and Monday, July 22, at the commission’s offices in Hallowell. Those who cannot attend in person or who are not otherwise heard can testify via an affidavit at a meeting or on the PUC’s website.

“We know there’s been a lot of concern about the bills,” Bartlett said during a news conference before the hearing. “We share the concerns of customers.”

He said the commission will look at management efficiency and how CMP is run as a business in determining rates CMP can charge. The commission’s staff has recommended cutting CMP’s potential profit because of poor performance.

The Rev. Deke Sawyer of Jackman, who heavily criticized CMP’s service performance, drew a round of applause when he asked the commission to immediately revoke CMP’s authority and replace it with another private utility or a consumer-owned utility.

He also asked that future CMP projects, including a proposed $1 billion hydropower transmission line called the New England Clean Energy Connect, not be allowed to be developed until another utility is formed and that the new utility not be required to buy CMP’s assets.

Sawyer also submitted a petition with 600 signatures supporting his requests as part of his sworn testimony.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham and co-chair of the Legislature’s energy committee, in May proposed the creation of the Maine Power Delivery Authority, a consumer-owned transmission and distribution company to replace both CMP and Emera Maine. CMP has strongly opposed the proposal.

Berry’s bill was held over until the next legislative session. However, Gov. Janet Mills recently signed into law a directive to have the PUC study the viability of a consumer-owned utility in more depth.

“Many of the people affected [by high bills] are really living on the margins,” Berry said during a news conference with the progressive Maine Small Business Coalition before the hearing. “If they get a bill for $500 … [paying it is] the difference between getting by and not getting by.”

Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins said before the meeting that consumers can file a complaint on the PUC’s Consumer Assistance Division website.

Lori Valigra, investigative reporter for the environment, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...