Water Dept. updates City of San Diego on its reform policies after spiked water bills: ‘We developed Standard Operating Procedures that we did not have before.’

Just over a year after the San Diego Public Utilities Department (PUD) held a meeting in La Jolla to talk with residents about implausible spikes in their water bills, PUD provided the City Council’s Audit Committee with a “progress report” on its activities to ameliorate the concerns.

The morning of March 20, PUD representatives addressed changes to water billing operations and the water meter cover replacements program, and told the committee that the majority of City Auditor recommended adjustments to department operations have been implemented. The rest, they said, were expected to be in effect by June.

“The goals are to increase the efficiency of the department,” said interim PUD director Matt Vespi. “We want to create a customer-centric utility. These changes highlight the department’s commitment to making changes ... to elevate the customer experience and improve operations.”

In early 2018, La Jollans joined the thousands of San Diego residents who reported higher-than-normal water bills. Through in-person meetings and postings on nextdoor.com, residents shared horror stories of bills that increased, and in some cases, quadrupled, for no apparent reasons.

Soon after, City Council member Barbara Bry called for an independent audit of the water department.

In the year that followed, several measures were suggested.

“Eighty percent of the recommendations have been completed, which is a commitment we made back when the audit was released,” said Johnnie Perkins, deputy COO of Infrastructure & Public Works. “We developed Standard Operating Procedures, which we did not have before. There wasn’t coordination and oversight. Management and employees weren’t talking to each other. They are doing that now.”

When it comes to repairs to the billing system, the City Auditor created 10 recommendations, most of which have been implemented.

Among them: “PUD should periodically assess the strength and effectiveness of its billing control environment and ... at least, twice a year, evaluate the number of implausible readings created and changed, in addition to the number of customers re-billed and the number of customer complaints. PUD could then assess if these numbers are high, identify causes, and adjust controls to address root causes, such as poor meter-reader performance.”

In response, PUD developed a system to generate reports to evaluate the number of customer re-bills, track customer complaints, and evaluate the number of “implausibles” to provide the data necessary to bi-annually evaluate the number of implausible readings, evaluate customer billing control environment statistics and establish Key Performance Indicators. The Implausible Dashboard Report and Customer Complaint Monthly Statistics serve as a baseline for future assessment purposes related to billing accuracy performance and internal control activities.

The City Auditor said PUD should also “develop, track and analyze employee performance metrics to increase the effectiveness of the meter-reading program and reduce potential billing errors before they impact customers.”

Among the four-point response, PUD has “introduced four new meter-reading key performance metrics that evaluate productivity specific to meter-reading accuracy, use of meter-reading handheld devices, and route assignments,” reps reported.

City Council member Scott Sherman opined that PUD “embraced the audit rather than run away from it,” and that “Once we get through this, I think the taxpayers, our employees, everyone is going to be better off for it.”

Council member Bry later told La Jolla Light: “I am pleased with the progress and changes that have been made at the Public Utilities Department in response to the comprehensive audit that I requested early last year. The fact that the department has implemented 80 percent of the audit recommendations is a step in the right direction in rebuilding the public’s trust.” <end_bug_diamond>

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