Philip Bartlett, chair of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, speaks with reporters at the University of Southern Maine in Portland on July 16, 2019. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Staff of Maine’s utility regulator recommended removing a penalty for poor performance on Central Maine Power Co., but voiced ongoing concern about its ability and commitment to improve customer service.

The penalty, which the Maine Public Utilities Commission staff recommended lifting on Tuesday, was levied in February 2020 after customers complained of high billing errors and poor customer service related to the utility’s new billing system and a historically strong October 2017 wind storm. It cost CMP shareholders an estimated $10 million in reduced earnings for 18 months in the highest penalty ever imposed by the commission.

The staff recommended removing the penalty after finding that CMP met four key metrics: answering 80 percent or more of business calls within 30 seconds, having a billing error rate of 0.4 percent or less, having a call-abandonment rate of 7 percent or less and not estimating more than 1 percent of bills.

CMP has increased staffing and training and extended call hours. It also initiated customer satisfaction surveys, reorganized several service positions and created seven new service coordinator positions, the commission staff said. The full commission must approve the order for the penalty to be lifted, and parties can comment on the report until Jan. 25.

An independent audit in July found that CMP’s ownership structure contributed to the service problems. The audit laid some of the blame on internal turmoil after the Spanish multinational firm Iberdrola merged two U.S. subsidiaries to create Avangrid — CMP’s parent company — in December 2015. The report covered the five years after the merger.

The commission staff did not issue a finding on whether CMP’s institutional or cultural changes will lead to continued or sustained improvement in customer service.

The commission staff found that CMP met or exceeded the benchmarks for all four metrics over the 18 months that began on March 1, 2020. However, the commission staff said it remains concerned about CMP’s performance and “it remains to be seen if that performance will be sustained.” 

It also said meeting the metrics might come at the expense of other areas of CMP’s service that might not show up for some time. The commission staff will require the company to continue to track and provide quarterly reports on the four metrics. If the metrics show service is degrading, the commission staff said it would consider reimposing a penalty.

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...