Philip Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, speaks with reporters at the University of Southern Maine in Portland before a public comment meeting on high CMP rates last July.

Legislators pressured the head of the Maine Public Utilities Commission Thursday about whether Central Maine Power is fit to operate as an electric utility in Maine.

The questions to commission Chairman Philip Bartlett came as he explained recent rulings on CMP’s rates and billing issues before the Legislature’s energy committee.

The commission on Jan. 30 ruled that CMP would be penalized $10 million over 18 months for poor performance and that it must compensate customers who had a billing error.

The commission also ruled that CMP could raise rates. It allowed CMP to increase its revenue requirement by 39 percent to $17.4 million to enhance service and reliability. That is less than half of the amount CMP initially requested. And it translates into a 6.9 percent increase in the distribution rate for the average residential customer and a 2 percent rise in the total monthly bill, the commission said.

Bartlett said the commission has to allow utilities to have “just and reasonable” rates. He said the U.S. Supreme Court has held that failure to give a utility an adequate return violates the Constitution.

The written orders on the rulings will be released next week, Bartlett said.

Chris Kessler, D-South Portland, said CMP’s customer service is bad and its electric service is the worst in the country.

Federal reliability data showed Maine had the most frequent and longest outages of any U.S. state in 2017. And last November J.D. Power and Associates said CMP had the worst customer satisfaction among 21,000 interviews with customers of 87 utilities nationwide.

“At what point do you determine they aren’t fit to do this?” Kessler asked Bartlett about CMP.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say CMP has failed on every count all the time,” Bartlett said. “I’ve seen tremendous strides in its storm response since 2017. I’ve seen significant improvement in communications and restoration.”

Nonetheless, he said CMP has made some serious mistakes, especially with customer service. However, by statute, the commission has to give the utility a chance to correct problems, he said.

“But they haven’t hit the point where they are unfit,” he said.

Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham and co-chair of the energy committee, asked Bartlett about the conditions under which the commission could ask CMP’s parent, Avangrid, to divest CMP. Avangrid has been criticized by CMP detractors because it is owned by a foreign company, Iberdrola of Spain.

“We can order divestiture,” Bartlett said. Such a vote could be initiated if two commissioners support divestiture.

“But it’s no small thing to vote for divestiture,” Bartlett said. “It is the beginning of a years’-long process.”

Bartlett said a required management audit of CMP and other orders from the commission provide “a framework for CMP to make significant strides.”

The commission ruled that CMP must meet service-quality metrics for 18 consecutive months before it can apply to the commission to remove the $10 million penalty.

Those metrics include looking at the percentage of business calls answered within 30 seconds, the percent of contractor calls answered within 30 seconds, keeping the call abandonment rate at 7 percent or less and the bill-error rate at 0.4 percent or less per month.

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Lori Valigra

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, 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...