Philip Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, speaks with reporters at the University of Southern Maine in Portland on Tuesday.

Demonstrators and several hundred witnesses are expected at a public hearing Tuesday evening in Portland, where regulators will listen to testimony about high electric bills and a rate hike request by Central Maine Power.

The hearing, the first of three during the coming week by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, has assumed more prominence than a typical rate hearing as it coincides with opposition to CMP’s proposed $1 billion hydroelectric project, lawsuits, a potential punitive profit cut related to poor customer service and efforts to disband and replace CMP and Emera Maine with a consumer-owned utility.

“This is a very important process,” Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins said of the hearings. “This is an opportunity for ratepayers to express their opinion. It will be part of the official record as they will be sworn in and take an oath under penalty of perjury.”

The public advocate also is investigating the high bills more deeply. Hobbins’ office is looking at more recent complaints. It received customer and usage information from CMP on July 12, Hobbins said.

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That review could take another eight weeks before the public advocate can present its findings to the PUC.

PUC spokesman Harry Lanphear said he expects a large crowd at Tuesday’s hearing. He said the PUC has received a “fair amount of inquiry” about the hearings. The length of time each witness has to speak depends on the total number of people who show up.

“We’ll determine the length at each event depending on the size of the crowd,” he said. Those who can’t come in person to any of the hearings or who are not otherwise heard can testify via an affidavit at a meeting or on the PUC’s website.

“It’s vitally important to hear from as many CMP customers as possible,” Philip Bartlett, the recently appointed PUC chairman, said in a statement. “First, all CMP customers must be able to trust their monthly bill — it must be accurate.

“Second, what we pay in Maine for electricity affects every household and business budget. That’s why we want to hear directly from CMP customers about their experiences and expectations as we move toward deciding both of these cases.”

Lanphear said all three commissioners will attend all three meetings. Tuesday’s hearing starts at 6 p.m. at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. Subsequent hearings are scheduled for Thursday at the University of Maine at Farmington and Monday, July 22, at the commission’s offices in Hallowell.

Lanphear said all people who want to testify must sign in. Bartlett will start the meeting with brief comments on how it will be run and then turn it over to the hearing examiner, who will swear in everyone who wants to testify.

Commissioners may ask questions. The transcript of the meeting should be available on the PUC website three to five business days after each meeting, Lanphear said.

“We expect people to be civil and respectful,” he said.

Lanphear said the PUC decided to hear the rate and billing cases together because some of the issues overlap. Commissioners plan to hold final hearings on the case filings July 24-26 at the PUC in Hallowell. Brief final arguments by the parties in the case will be held in August, the Examiner’s report with recommendations by PUC staff is due out in September and a final decision on the rate case is due in October.

A decision on the billing and metering case is expected by the end of the year.

“Should there ultimately be [a PUC] finding that CMP failed to provide safe, reliable and adequate utility service as a result of our investigation, possible remedies available to the Commission would include refunds to affected customers, disallowing unreasonable costs and directing the utility to take

specific actions to remedy service inadequacies,” the PUC wrote in a fact sheet about the case.

Storm of controversy

CMP came under the microscope since the October 2017 wind storm, when consumers began receiving higher-than-expected electric bills. CMP has said it is working to resolve identified problems, but complaints to the PUC, public advocate and grassroots consumer groups persist.

At the same time, the company has asked the PUC to raise its distribution rate as much as 10.65 percent. CMP also has proposed limiting the impacts to customers with a 2.21 percent increase instead, although that will increase delivery rates in future years, according to the PUC.

Both actions have spurred criticism from ratepayers.

In reviewing CMP’s rate and revenue requirements, PUC hearing examiners proposed that the utility’s profit level be decreased with a “management efficiency adjustment” for ongoing poor service that started in 2016.

Commission staff in February recommended that CMP be penalized for its poor customer service performance by having its allowable profit cut $4 million to $6 million annually, according to the PUC. Despite CMP’s rebuttal to the recommendation, the PUC staff reaffirmed its recommendation in June. A final decision is pending and could affect the potential rate hike, Lanphear said.

The PUC determines how much money a regulated utility can bring in to provide adequate service to customers and adequate returns to shareholders.

“CMP views the upcoming public witness hearings as an important procedural component of the ongoing PUC investigations,” CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett wrote in an email.

“It would be inappropriate to speculate on anticipated PUC decisions in the midst of an ongoing rate case,” she said.

CMP also faces opposition to its proposed $1 billion hydropower project, known as the New England Clean Energy Connect, or NECEC, from towns along the transmission route, some environmentalists and two unions concerned about job losses.

And while the PUC endorsed a key permit for NECEC in April, an energy company has filed a lawsuit challenging that decision.

The grassroots group “Say No to NECEC” said it plans to hold protests outside all three hearings.

“There is no reason CMP should benefit from a rate increase before making it right with their customers’ basic needs,” Sandi Howard, director of Say No to NECEC, said in an email.

Additionally, there is an effort by opponents to have voters decide the fate of that project.

That’s not the end to CMP’s challenges. It is facing a class-action lawsuit over the high bills and customer service issues. Those problems also led Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham and co-chair of the Legislature’s energy committee, to propose 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.

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...