By Ramona du Houx
February 11, 2022
In a 10-2 vote, a bipartisan majority of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee voted last week to advance a bill sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, that would protect public safety facilities from sudden utility service disconnection.
As amended, LD 1847 would require a public utility to provide 60 days’ advance written notice to public safety facilities of its intent to terminate or disconnect service, as well as to obtain prior authorization from the Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Public Safety.
A committee amendment also requires that the utility carry out the law without demanding additional guaranteed profits as part of future rates.
At the bill’s public hearing last month, Berry said he introduced the measure in response to two recent incidents in which Central Maine Power (CMP) almost mistakenly shut down electricity to critical public safety facilities in Maine. In each case, the issue was an error relating to CMP’s billing system.
“Now more than ever, public safety depends on electricity,” said Rep. Berry. “Smaller, rural fire departments are especially vulnerable. Lifesaving equipment for ambulances and fire trucks such as defibrillators, IV fluid systems and laryngoscope handles for intubation, garage doors and block heaters for cold-starting emergency vehicles all require electricity. CMP has now repeatedly failed to protect public safety, so it is our responsibility as a Legislature to require it.”
The Maine Municipal Association (MMA) spoke in support of the legislation, as did the Professional Firefighters of Maine and the Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association.
Also testifying were two town managers who almost experienced disconnections, despite having paid their bills. One of these was Bradley Plante, who was serving as interim town manager in Buckfield when CMP attempted to disconnect power at the town’s fire/rescue facility last summer due to inadvertent billing and communication errors.
“We fortunately avoided a major incident which would have endangered the health, welfare and safety of the residents of Buckfield,” said Plante. “Let us do the right thing and pass some proactive legislation before we have unnecessary loss of life due to an administrative error.”
A bipartisan majority of the committee voted to advance the legislation. The bill faces further votes in the House and Senate in the coming weeks.
“This bill seeks to put measures in place so that this confusion never happens again,” said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, the bill’s lead co-sponsor. “The fact that this episode happened at all is yet more sad testimony to the extraordinary ineptitude of our foreign-owned utility in managing our critical, local electricity infrastructure.”
“As word of this legislation spread among municipal officials, more examples of unwarranted or unsafe termination of electric utilities were revealed,” said Neal Goldberg on behalf of MMA. “Termination of service to public safety facilities was the most alarming. No provider should be able to unreasonably end delivery of an essential utility to public safety services. This is a matter of life or death. In most instances, the mistake was committed by the provider. Putting aside the surprising number of clerical errors, providers displayed no concern or compassion for the potential for risk they were creating. Past experiences have shown that providers need to proceed more diligently before terminating service, and regrettably, this legislation is needed to secure the stability of our public safety facilities.”
Rep. Berry represents House District 55, which includes Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Swan Island and most of Richmond. He previously served from 2006-2014, the final two years as House majority leader, and returned to the House in 2016.