July 18, 2012 -- Central Maine Power Co. shut off electricity to 29,554 homes last year for non-payment of bills, an apparent record number, and local LIHEAP administering agencies are seeing record numbers of people seeking help for disconnections, according to The Portland Press Herald.
Disconnections hovered around 17,500 a year until 2007, on the eve of the national recession, then shot up — rising by 60 percent last year. Overall, economists say, the disconnection activity at Maine's largest utility can serve as an indicator — similar to jobless statistics and mortgage foreclosures — to track the state's economy.
The figures were requested by the Maine Sunday Telegram to examine the relationship between power disconnections and the state's economic health.
"It makes sense that as the economy is doing poorly, these are bills that just don't get paid," said Amanda Rector, Maine's state economist. "There's been no substantial improvement, so it's not surprising that disconnects would stay high."
CMP figures aren't available yet for the first half of 2012. But community action programs have been fielding a flood of calls so far this year about disconnections.
At Western Maine Community Action, which serves low-income residents in Franklin County, requests for help with disconnects and inability to pay electric bills have doubled since 2010. Calls jumped from an average of 25 a month in 2010, to 58 a month this year.
"Once the (winter) moratorium is over, the calls come in," said Danielle Flannery, program manager at WMCA in East Wilton. The power company is prohibited from disconnecting electric service between Nov. 15 and April 15 and the peak period for disconnections is right before the moratorium starts and right after it ends, according to officials.
From 2008 through 2010, Maine lost 28,000 jobs, many of them in manufacturing and construction. Maine's seasonally adjusted jobless rate stayed around 5 percent into 2008, jumping above 8 percent in 2009 and 2010, before moderating last year. But people who lost manual labor jobs have had a tough time replacing them, according to Glenn Mills, director of economic research at the state's labor department. That may help explain why disconnects hit a high point last year.
CMP had roughly 544,000 home customers in 2011, and stopped service to 29,554 of them. Last year was the peak, so far, of an upward trend that began in 2007, when disconnects totaled 18,553.
There's no clear demographic profile of whose power is disconnected, said Derek Davidson, director of the PUC's Consumer Assistance Division. Aside from low-income residents, anyone who loses a job is at risk, he said.
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