May 24, 2018

The 2,400 customers of the Hampden Telephone Co. will rightly ask when the PUC considers an agreement between its staff and the phone company, “What’s in it for us?” The Public Utilities Commission, which will consider the consent decree in the next few weeks, must recognize that the person with the biggest potential loss in this case is the customer.

The decree, in essence, allows the company to avoid admitting guilt while it suffers the loss of $5,000 a year for at least two years and its owners pay back some $17,000 in expenses. Those are small numbers for the PUC, considering its recent rejection of an $83 million rate hike for Central Maine Power, but the case addresses large concerns.

An auditor’s report of the financial activity at Hampden Telephone Co. reveals a wide range of infractions. Though the report is in no way a final judgment, it offers testimony about a company that lost all sense of responsibility to the people it was supposed to be serving. Among the findings of the auditor: From 1989-1991, the owners of the company, the Gamble family, charged the company more than $75,000 for travel and meals, most of which had nothing to do with company business. Over that same time, the family charged nearly $32,000 on long-distance telephone calls, again without a clear link to the business. Thousands of dollars were spent on education courses that had nothing to do with company business — a tai chi class for one family member, for instance.

Endless small perquisites of food, clothing, auto reimbursements, golf-course fees, gifts, expenses for boarding dogs, and so forth, showed up in the auditor’s report. It is difficult to believe that the filing of these expenses could be attributed to simple ignorance when on two occasions receipts for show tickets — for professional wrestling and for Kenny Rogers — had their purpose scratched out or covered, “trade show” written in and were charged to the company. That is, to customers.

What customers get out of the consent decree is about $4 each, the amount of the revenue reduction spread out among the number of people who pay for the phone service. There is compelling evidence that they have lost far more than that. If the PUC doesn’t have a strong enough case to recover the losses to the customer, it must identify in what ways the auditor’s report is lacking. If it believes that going to court would cost the state more than what Hampden customers could recover, it at least should outline the losses and court costs.

The PUC sent a strong signal last month when it denied CMP’s rate hike — management and efficiencies of service, it indicated, should come before hitting up the customers for more money. It should maintain that same spirit when it reviews the Hampden Telephone consent decree.

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