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Advocates push public power in Maine as NY probes utilities owned by CMP parent company

Central Maine Power (WGME)
Central Maine Power (WGME)
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STATEWIDE (WGME) -- Three years after Central Maine Power was hit with a $10 million penalty for billing errors and poor customer service, two utilities in New York owned by CMP's parent company are now under investigation for similar complaints.

Just like in Maine, the frustration has some calling for change and pushing for a public takeover.

"It is very confusing. It's frustrating," Rochester Gas and Electric customer Mary Jo DiNoto said in an interview with our sister station, WHAM, in December.

From high power bills that have more than doubled, to no bills at all.

"No November, no December," customer Laura Guernsey said.

Utility customers in upstate New York have a lot of concerns.

So much so, New York's Department of Public Service recently expanded its investigation into billing, meter reading and customer service problems at New York State Electric and Gas, and Rochester Gas and Electric, citing more than 5,700 complaints against the companies.

In the case file, one small business owner reports she got a bill in January for more than $68,000. She writes that the error was corrected, but also caused "great anxiety."

NYSEG and RG&E are subsidiaries of Avangrid, which also owns Central Maine Power.

Back in 2018, customers in Maine complained of high, inaccurate and late bills.

Reporting by the I-Team prompted a state investigation, which found the company mismanaged the rollout of its new billing system, causing tens of thousands of billing errors.

Management practices at CMP are still in question today.

Last year, the Maine Public Utilities Commission opened another investigation, looking at whether CMP's parent company is putting profits above customer needs.

"We welcome investigations," Avangrid CEO Pedro Azagra said in an interview with WHAM earlier this month.

Azagra blames the problems in New York on the pandemic, saying workers couldn’t get into homes to read meters, meaning they were relying on estimates.

"It's difficult. We have had those issues," Azagra said. "You could not access homes to read those meters. Now, suddenly you haven’t been reading the meter for a long time and now you have to read it and of course the increase is much higher."

"It’s just another piece of evidence that a consumer-owned utility is the way to go for Maine," former state representative Seth Berry said.

Berry is among those pushing to oust the company from Maine and switch to a consumer-owned utility, something voters will decide in November.

"Trust is very important and they have violated that trust in Maine," Berry said. "They violated it now in upstate New York."

The I-Team asked Avangrid for an interview, but nobody was made available.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Avangrid said:

To attempt to link very different past billing issues with a government control power campaign funded by special interests is not only misguided but irresponsible. In fact, the billing issues in Maine were corrected years ago and now bills are 98% accurate and timely, and in New York following the devastating impacts of COVID on staffing, we are increasing staff and making technical improvements and are already seeing positive results. These facts along with past failed attempts at government control power in other states are clear and do nothing to improve service and reliability but rather puts taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars while raising rates, jeopardizing needed grid improvements and halting any transition to clean energy.

Like Maine, the growing frustration in New York now has some in Rochester pushing for public power. A group called Metro Justice is leading the charge and calling on city leaders to commission and fund an implementation study.

"We’re there to serve our customers. There’s no profit motive," Ursula Schryver, with the American Public Power Association, said.

APPA represents non-profit, community-owned utilities that serve about 2,000 cities and towns across the U.S.

"Twenty or so communities contact us every year," Schryver said. "Probably eight or nine are really working on it right now."

Motivated by environmental concerns, rates or reliability, Schryver said 18 new public power utilities have formed in the last 20 years.

While many efforts don’t make it that far, she said, they’re often considered successful.

"The idea of there being another option is valuable to the communities that are looking at public power," Schryver said.

Brad Viator, an energy consultant who previously worked at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, like CMP, echoed that sentiment.

"We’ve seen utilities have to adjust because there’s a real threat that these customers could move on and find another source of power, and that tends to sort of lead to the result customers really want," Viator said.

He said the discussions are healthy, but he believes the greatest incentive for a utility to get its act together is financial penalties imposed by state regulators.

CBS13 I-Team Reporter Marissa Bodnar: "So, you tend to see an improvement in performance?"
Viator: "Yeah, absolutely. It's a 'put up or shut up' moment."

CMP was hit with a stiff penalty for its billing errors and poor customer service.

That penalty was lifted last year after state regulators determined the company met or exceeded benchmarks.

Viator cautions some of that oversight may be lost with public power.

"I mean, the government becomes judge, jury and executioner all in one. There's no one really to put those folks in check," Viator said.

Berry disagrees, arguing Maine's quasi-governmental utility would still be regulated by the PUC.

"The biggest risk, by far, is staying with what we know is not working," Berry said.

A spokesperson for the New York Department of Public Service tells the I-Team:

"From the complaints and comments received to date, it is clear something is amiss regarding the utilities’ billing systems, meter reading procedures, ability to process ‘complex bills’ including solar and renewable energy generally, and customer service. In terms of next steps, we will review and consider the submitted comments and complaints to help determine our future course of action."
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