UPDATE: Natural gas utility urged to help Cumberland customers failed by contractor who went out of business

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CUMBERLAND — Days after the  abrupt closing of a Howland contractor handling natural gas connections in Cumberland, Falmouth and Yarmouth – which could cost many would-be customers the deposits they paid for the service – town officials implored the gas utility to take a hand in resolving the matter.

Town Manager Bill Shane is among officials urging people who have paid Dave Ireland Builders the deposits – which he said have ranged between $1,000 and $3,000 – to contact Summit Natural Gas with their complaints, and to also contact the Maine attorney general’s office with as much information about the matter as possible.

Shane, other town officials, and residents also called for Summit to help in the resolution. Brochures with both Ireland’s and Summit’s names on them, encouraging residents to sign up with Ireland, drew the ire of some at Monday’s Town Council discussion on the matter.

The manager has also asked that customers have related contracts and paperwork ready to be inspected, and to have a copy available if possible to be distributed electronically.

Shane said he has sought assistance from Mike Minkos, president of Summit Gas of Maine, as well as the company’s director of business development, Mike Duguay. He said he is also working with the town’s attorney and police chief, and the Cumberland County district attorney, to see if residents should file “theft of services” complaints.

Duguay also urged residents to contact the AG’s office, and to reach out to Summit as well at 621-8000 with their contact information, so the company can determine which citizens have been impacted by Ireland’s closing.

Log onto cumberlandmaine.com for more information on filing a complaint with the Cumberland Police and AG’s office.

Duguay said at Monday’s meeting that Summit is not affiliated with Ireland, and that he is an independent contractor. Councilor Mike Edes referred to a brochure that called the two entities “partners in energy efficiency.”

Shane pointed out to Duguay that “right from day one, your sales staff was basically directing people to (Ireland) because of their positive experience working with him. … If it wasn’t direct appearance, it certainly was an appearance that there was a connection between the two by many people in our community.”

Dave Ginsberg of Main Street said he and his wife had “saved really hard just to get the deposit” required by Ireland, and noted that even if Ireland printed the brochures, Summit had a big stack of them at its office, and that they were available at a Summit informational meeting in Cumberland.

“I think that Summit is completely responsible for this … I really feel like I’ve been taken advantage of,” Ginsberg said. “… If you want to maintain any semblance of a positive public image, you guys will pony up whatever this money is. It should be as simple as, I show you my contract that I have with Dave Ireland, my cancelled $2,500 (deposit) check, and you guys cut me a new check. And then I’ll be your customer. That’s it; I’ll be happy.”

Shane asked that Summit’s advertising money go toward residents who have been impacted, and that the company act quickly in resolving the matter.

“Please hear, loud and clear, that we really expect you to … help us get through this,” Shane told Duguay. “… These are going to be lifetime customers, when you get them connected. … The longer we drag this out, the less attractive it’s going to look to most of our customers.”

Councilor Ron Copp said he just built a new commercial building in town, and had wanted to be a “guinea pig” for the natural gas project.

“Thank God I’m not, but there are a lot of people in the audience that are, and they’ve been taken advantage of,” he told Duguay. “… You have the power to go back to Summit and talk to them, and make this right. Help these people out. Because if you don’t, I will not be a customer of Summit.”

Duguay noted that Summit has made the commitment to the community to be there for a long time, “and obviously, in our first year, this comes up, it’s very frustrating on our end. … We had thought that many people who were in this process would be converted in the next few weeks, and be able to take natural gas service.”

Minkos said earlier Monday that Summit is sympathetic, is looking into the issue and “trying to evaluate ways under which we may be able to continue to facilitate the customer converting to natural gas.”

Summit is the utility that has so far brought nearly 50 miles of natural gas piping into the three towns. From there, a pool of plumbing and heating contractors has been available for interior work needed in residents’ homes, including conversion of an existing heating systems to natural gas, or installation of new systems.

Ireland was one of those contractors. The package he offered included home energy audits, conversions or new installations, and air sealing. He absorbed the rebates for the audits and air sealing, while in other cases the homeowners must handle that themselves, Shane said Monday.

“So right out of the gate he had kind of an advantage,” Shane said, noting that as a Cumberland resident, he considered signing a contract with Ireland for $8,700, before deciding to go with a contractor with whom he has done business for 13 years, despite a higher cost of $11,000.

Shane noted that he did not have to give his longtime contractor any money in advance.

The situation has been “difficult for me to swallow, because we’ve worked so hard collectively as three towns … to get this utility to our towns,” Shane said. “And now (it’s unfortunate) to have one contractor … put a scar on this a little bit, because of what he’s done to folks. And especially right before the holidays, and especially  before a potentially long winter, when people were hoping to start recouping some of their investment in their system.”

The town is working with the AG’s office to get the deposits back to residents, but such a process takes time, Shane said.

“Now folks that were originally scheduled to be converted may never convert,” he said, “because there’s also that trust issue.”

Despite potentially losing his $2,800 deposit on the $8,850 installation of a new natural gas system, Bert Kendall of Glenview Road said Monday that he still plans to makes the switch from oil, and is looking for a new installer.

Kendall paid the deposit during the summer. The initial installation date of Sept. 24 was repeatedly postponed, as temperatures and his heating oil supply steadily dropped. He heard last week about Ireland closing.

“Now it’s back to square one,” Kendall said, noting that he ordered 100 gallons of oil “so we’ll have a warm Thanksgiving.”

Councilor George Turner, who had also signed up with Ireland but had yet to have the work done, said he paid a deposit of $3,100.

In an online announcement, Shane shared a letter to residents from Jason Lamb, a master plumber and gas technician based in Windham, who handled many local natural gas conversions.

“I was the former Manager of the Plumbing and Heating Division at Dave Ireland Builders, and most likely met you at some point within the last few months in regards to your conversion to gas,” Lamb wrote.

He said he hooked up about 35-40 homes in the area so far, and estimated that the number of people who made deposits, but not have the work done, was “definitely in the hundreds.” He also said the deposits ranged from $1,000 to $3,500, depending on the magnitude of the job.

Lamb said he found out after work on Nov. 18 about Ireland abruptly closing his business, noting that he did not get a clear indication why it was happening.

I am writing this to you make you aware of the above and to also provide you with my personal information, so that you can contact me directly for your heating installation and service needs moving forward,” he said in the message on Cumberland’s website. “I know there are still others in the neighborhood that need to be converted and (I) would like to help in any way I can.”

Lamb said he has heard from many customers whose conversions still had yet to be completed. About half want to proceed with the conversions, he said.

Lamb is able to continue doing the conversions, and said he could honor the prices quoted by Ireland. Still, customers will have lost the deposits paid to Ireland.

Ireland’s business voicemail was full when he was called Monday for comment, nor could he be reached on his cell phone. The business has nearly 20 years of building experience throughout New England, according to its website.

“We are not only proud of our Better Business Bureau (Accreditation), but we are pleased with our A+ Rating!,” the website says.

Martha Currier, a complaint examiner in the AG’s Consumer Protection Division, said Monday that “at this point, we’re just monitoring (the situation), we’re asking people to send us their complaints,” and distributing complaint forms for the customers to fill out.

She said she had heard from “under a dozen consumers that have experienced this problem,” noting that the AG’s office would not reach out to Ireland to see if he is willing to mediate until it has received a formal complaint, which had yet to happen.

“Businesses go out of business all the time, so it’s hard for me to say what action we are going to take at this point,” Currier said. “It will depend on how many more folks I hear from.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.