Oct. 12—The state's highest court has ruled that Central Maine Power was not being unreasonable when it sent disconnection warning notices to customers last winter.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Maine Public Utilities Commission banned utilities from sending shutoff warnings to residential customers for months in 2020. The commission then lifted that moratorium in November 2020.
The following month, a group of customers filed a complaint requesting the freeze be extended through the winter. The PUC denied the request, and the customers took their case to court. Their complaint focused on CMP, although the policy had applied to all utilities.
Eleven plaintiffs, all associated with the consumer group CMP Ratepayers Unite, said CMP acted unreasonably as defined by Maine law when it sent the notices during Maine's coldest season and as the pandemic worsened.
CMP said the wording of its disconnection notices complied with state regulations. Also, utilities have to get special approval from the PUC to shut off power to homes during the heating season, so customers are generally protected from such action between November and April.
The PUC said ending the moratorium would help customers limit their debts to utilities, which would grow without a repayment plan, and would also reduce the likelihood that utilities would seek higher rates in the future to recover losses from unpaid customer bills.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments in the case last month and upheld the commission's denial Tuesday. The justices looked back at the announcement in September 2020 that the moratorium would be ending and decided the ratepayers' complaint was without merit.
"Although the number of COVID-19 cases undisputedly increased after the (Public Utilities) Commission's September order, the order was premised not on ever fluctuating case counts but on transitioning from the circumstances that led to the moratorium, when 'schools and businesses were being shuttered, and people were being asked to stay home,' toward 'something of a new normal,' " the opinion says.
In a footnote, the justices added that they typically do not hear appeals when the issues are moot. They decided to take this one even though winter had passed, they wrote, to provide guidance on an issue of public concern.
Catharine Hartnett, a spokeswoman for CMP, said the company fully complied with the moratorium and did not disconnect any residential customers between Nov. 15, 2020, and April 15, 2021. In mid-January, the utility said about 5 percent, or roughly 32,000, of its 640,000 customers recently had received notices informing them that they had overdue balances. Hartnett could not provide an updated figure Tuesday.
"At CMP, we want to connect our customers with sources of assistance, and to help them create affordable payment plans rather than have them slip further behind on their accounts," she wrote in an email. "For months, we have been reaching out to customers to let them know about the sources of federal money available to help Mainers who have been impacted by COVID to pay utility bills and we will continue to do that."
Attorneys for the plaintiffs did not respond to requests for comment via voicemail and email Tuesday.