CMP audit shows accurate meters, billing system errors
Liberty Consulting, the group the Maine Public Utilities Commission hired to conduct an audit into higher than expected electric bills for Central Maine Power customers at the start of 2018 and again in August, released a report Dec. 20.
Liberty investigated the smart meter system, the new billing system, high bills, and CMP’s customer care system during and after the extreme cold snap in December and January and a hot spell in August.
According to the report’s summary, the smart meter system accurately measured usage, although Liberty found evidence of uncommon circumstances in one of the meter types, the AMI, which registered some customers’ usage inaccurately. The report did not explain how properties without power, during and after the October 2017 windstorm, were billed for service.
Liberty said its analysis of high bills showed usage levels consistent with expectations of cold weather. At the same time, supplier rates increased substantially, adding to the effects of higher than typical usage.
Liberty wrote, "The introduction of SmartCare (CMP’s new billing program) at the end of October 2017 introduced errors and significant delay into the billing process.” Liberty said the errors it examined were minimal in number and dollar value. However, Liberty was unable to match billing calculations for several thousand supply arrangements, but believed the mismatches related to Liberty’s inability to account for the “unique billing factors” involved.
Liberty claimed the total dollar value of those mismatches was also minimal. “Management should, however, rationalize the remaining calculation differences. The overall magnitude of those differences, however, is too small to be considered a contributor to high bills last winter."
The implementation of the system, however, was lacking, according to the audit. "Significant gaps in SmartCare testing and training and in the transition to it produced in its initial phase of operation (contributed to) unnecessarily large numbers of errors requiring lengthy manual correction before bill issuance.” After the initial problems were fixed, a shortage of personnel contributed to the inability to eliminate errors in subsequent billing cycles. Continuing shortages of personnel made it difficult for customers to reach CMP and get answers to questions and concerns, which meant long delays in resolving the billing problems. CMP’s customer performance metrics fell below norms and remained so most of the year, some still continuing today, Liberty said. “We consider management responsible for generating a high level of customer concern, produced by less than adequate SmartCare development and transition to operations processes and by a continuing shortage of sufficient numbers of customer service personnel after SmartCare go-live."
Customer communication was also a major problem. "CMP experienced a 22 percent increase in times to handle calls following SmartCare go-live and high rates of calls abandoned by customers before response by the company. CMP has also failed to meet consistently its target level of service (answering 80 percent of customer calls within 45 seconds, a target consistent with industry experience) as it continued to struggle to address customer billing issues later in the year. A lack of sufficient staffing has materially contributed to long answer and call handling times. A lack of sufficient experience and supervision have impaired the ability to resolve specific customer inquiries and complaints and to address systemic issues underlying them."
Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), chair of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, said Liberty’s report “confirms what many of us have been saying for over a year: CMP failed both its Maine customers and its Maine workers. Instead of making sure its billing system worked, and instead of hiring enough employees to meet Mainers’ needs, CMP cut corners, then ignored and denied its mistakes while chasing a lucrative regional energy corridor to further benefit its investors overseas. Put simply, CMP has lost the confidence of Maine people. It is no longer the company we can trust to deliver power affordably and reliably to our homes and businesses.”
The PUC will determine next steps in a public session Tuesday, Jan. 8.