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‘It Is Our Fault’ — City promises refunds, system overhaul to address La Jolla residents’ water bill spikes

City of San Diego Public Utilities Department (PUD) representatives promised refunds, individualized attention and improvements to customer service in light of recent spikes in water bills across La Jolla and the greater San Diego area. What they did not provide, however, is a definitive explanation of why the increases took place to the extent that they did.

City of San Diego Chief Operating Officer Kris Michell, Public Utilities Customer Support Deputy Director Mike Vogl and Public Utilities Director Vic Bianes spoke at a special forum held Feb. 21 at the La Jolla Library. The experts addressed the recent increases and what will be done about them, manned information tables, and customer service representatives filled the Library’s computer lab to review individual bills and start the resolution process.

La Jollans began meeting to discuss their unexplained, increased water bills in January. In the course of conversations and postings on nextdoor.com, residents shared horror stories of bills that increased, and in some cases, quadrupled.

 
Residents pack the La Jolla Library community room to hear about water bill increases Feb. 21 Ashley Mackin-Solomon

Without pinpointing the exact cause of the spikes, Michell said several factors went into play around the same time. These include: human error, a one-time 10-day addition to the billing cycle, a 6.9 percent rate increase, leaks that residents weren’t aware of, and additional water usage.

During the drought of 2012-2017, San Diegans were asked to reduce their water use, but to maintain income and cover expenses, rates went up. So, for many residents, the bills increased despite decreased water use.

“I don’t want to call this a perfect storm because there is nothing perfect about it,” Michell said. “But these events compounded one on top of the other. And then there are some bills that are completely wrong. There is some human error in this, and that is significant. If your bill was wrong, you are going to get a refund for any cost associated with that. The Mayor is committed to getting this right. We are going to presume it is our fault, and that is the bottom line, because it is. We’re going to figure out what happened and what is going on.”

When it comes to getting money back, overcharges of more than $50 will be issued by way of a refund check, amounts under $50 will be credited to the account.

Bianes added that identifying the cause of the unexplained increases is “one of the department’s top issues” and apologized. “I know many of you are frustrated and some of you are angry. I apologize. I have been tasked with looking at every single component associated with the billing — starting with customer service to meter reading and testing — to see what we can do differently,” he said.

Short- and long-term solutions

“This is a one-by-one process, so we are going to address each person’s bill. I don’t care how long it takes. That is what we are going to do. Systemically, we are looking back to determine the things that were wrong — and they were seriously wrong,” Michell said, focusing on a meter reader who misread more than 300 meters making the “human error.”

Looking forward, she said an audit is underway to determine ways the PUD could operate more efficiently. City Auditor Eduardo Luna will carry out the audit, and preliminary results are expected in April with more formal results in June.

Smart meters

Another “solution” is the roll-out of the City of San Diego’s Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) system and the associated Smart Meters that feed into it. The roll-out has been underway since 2012, and thereby not a factor in this particular problem, but City reps said the AMI system will eliminate the need for readers (and eliminate human error) and allow water users to monitor their use via an app.

 
A Smart Meter that feeds into the City's Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) Ashley Mackin-Solomon

Vogl explained that the new app is coming out at the end of March. It allows those with Smart Meters to see one’s water use, and set up alerts if usage is higher than normal.

Smart Meters, unlike their analog predecessors, have a cable attached to a small gray transmitter. The meter itself has the same analog dial, similar to an odometer on a car, but the measurement is transmitted digitally. The meters are set in the meter box in the ground.

AMI and Smart Meters should be completely installed by 2020.

PUD Deputy Director of Water Construction & Maintenance Tom Howard showed examples of the smart meters and explained how they work.

When asked how WiFi, radio frequencies and micro-wave emissions could impact the meters, Howard said he had “no idea,” but Vogl quickly jumped in to clarify. “These systems have been out for years. There is not any evidence of (WiFi interference). If anything, interference would stop the communication, it is not going to change the communication,” Vogl said.

Cautiously, Michell said there would be additional testing of the smart meters in areas near radio towers or sources of interference.

Customer Service

Citing extensive caller wait times, customer service agents hanging up on callers, no call-backs when residents report a problem and more, Michell said she was “heartbroken” over the complaints with customer service. “We want to fix that now to make sure you get the service you deserve,” she said.

PUD is adding new staff and technology to respond to concerns, including more customer service representatives to answer phones, and is creating a voicemail system and online submission form to make customer queries easier.

Bianes added: “If you call us, we will get back to you within 72 hours to let you know we received your call and have started the process. In the past, maybe that did not happen, but we see that as unacceptable. We are bringing additional folks into the process so we can address your calls within three days.”

Miss The Forum?

There will be two Saturday sessions at which staff will work with customers to settle their water bill overharges: 9 a.m. to noon and 2-5 p.m., March 10; and 9 a.m. to noon, March 24 at the City of San Diego Public Utilities Department, 9192 Topaz Way, Kearny Mesa.

There will also be a session 2-5 p.m., March 24 at Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, 404 Euclid Ave., Lincoln Park.

Those who wish to discuss their bills can also call (619) 515-3500 or e-mail customercare@sandiego.gov

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