Credit: CBS 13 | WGME

Central Maine Power on Wednesday put forward several initiatives to repair its damaged image, including a new fund to help ratepayers with billing complaints and a partnership with Efficiency Maine to help customers reduce energy costs.

The move comes as the utility faces intensifying ratepayer complaints and investigations by regulators and the Office of the Public Advocate into high bills and poor customer service. In addition, regulators ruled earlier this week to hold off deciding on a rate increase until an investigation into the customer issues ends.

“I understand that CMP needs to continue to work hard to regain the trust and confidence of our customers,” Doug Herling, president and CEO of CMP, said in a prepared statement.

The initiatives, spelled out in a commission filing, include a $6 million fund to help compensate customers harmed by billing problems, a partnership with Efficiency Maine Trust to help customers with unresolved high use complaints, the appointment of a new customer service head and creating a team of nine professionals who can provide analytics and technical support. Efficiency Maine subsidizes energy-savings projects such as heat pumps and insulation at businesses and in homes.

Linda Ball, a 20-year veteran in customer service, will assume the newly created position of vice president of customer service for Maine on Sept. 1. Ball now works in the process and technologies business area for CMP’s parent company Avangrid Networks.

CMP proposed the $6 million “Customer Benefit Fund” to the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which regulates utilities. It recommended that the commission establish the fund, which will be entirely funded by CMP but left to the commission to administer and dole out to affected ratepayers.

The company said it would contribute a total of $6 million, funded in 12 monthly contributions of $500,000.

However, the fund is contingent upon the commission approving the rate case.

And, the fund would be set up to avoid a proposed “management efficiency” decrease. Commission staff in February proposed cutting CMP’s allowable profit because the utility’s service has lagged in recent years. Rates and profits are set under the jurisdiction of the commission.

“This is an opening offer, but we are not at a point where we can settle,” Public Advocate Barry Hobbins said. “CMP needs to resolve its customer issues first.”

Hobbins said the $6 million fund is about equal to the amount the commission staff has recommended CMP’s profits be reduced for its poor performance. He said it’s unlikely that will be enough money to make restorations to customers.

The commission, which has been reviewing the rate case along with the case on billing issues, on Tuesday ruled to delay its decision on rates until the billing case is concluded, which is expected by the end of this year. The decision on rates was originally due in October.

The company has asked the commission to raise its distribution rate, one of several rates on the electricity bill, as much as 10.65 percent. That’s about $5 per month added to an average residential customer’s bill for using 500 kilowatt hours a month.

CMP has been 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 utilities commission, public advocate and grassroots consumer groups persist.

[Few people show for first hearing on CMP rates in Portland, but those who did criticized the utility heavily]

The commission held three public hearings in July about CMP’s proposed rate hike and the billing and metering issues. A hearing in Portland on July 16 was sparsely attended, but drew vocal critics of the utility.