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San Diego Officials Looking To Solve Mystery Of High Water Bills

Water runs from a faucet in a College Area home, February 7, 2018.

Photo by Claire Trageser

Above: Water runs from a faucet in a College Area home, February 7, 2018.

San Diego officials are taking on the mystery of why residents from across the city are receiving water bills for thousands of dollars.

City Councilwoman Barbara Bry has asked the city auditor to examine the Public Utilities Department to determine the cause. She made the request after getting almost 100 complaints from constituents and hearing from other councilmembers that they had received reports of high water bills as well.

"We have no idea what's causing it," she said. "This could be a computer issue, could be some sort of technical issue."

But she said she does think that there is a reason for the high bills beyond just customers using more water.

"It's too many cases in a short period of time that I believe that something is wrong," she said.

Contact Barbara Bry

If you have received a water bill that you think is abnormal, you can contact Councilwoman Barbara Bry here.

Councilman Chris Cate also sent a memo to the Public Utilities Department asking what is causing the abnormally high bills.

"My office has contacted the Public Utilities Department on several occasions to address this issue and has yet to receive an adequate explanation," it said.

Reports have spread throughout the local news media of residents with extremely high bills: a San Carlos resident told The San Diego Union-Tribune she received a bill for $3,334 and NBC San Diego reported on a Pacific Beach woman who got a bill for double her normal amount.

Jerry McCormick, a spokesman for the Public Utilities Department, said the department is investigating what has happened.

"There really is no one reason for all of these bill spikes other than the rate increase and extended bill period," he said.

The city saw a 6.9 percent rate increase in water last July.

Photo credit: Scott Templeton

A water meter in the ground is shown at a home in Normal Heights, Dec. 24, 2017

But that does not explain the more than $3,800 Normal Heights resident Scott Templeton was told he owed.

Just before Christmas, he received corrected bills from the Public Utilities Department stating he and his wife had used more than 1,000 gallons of water a day since March 2017 — about 10 times what they normally use.

"It was just before Christmas, and I didn't want to have to pay thousands of dollars in an incorrect bill, but I was also worried about having my water shut off," Templeton said.

He sent a letter to the city requesting they recheck his water meter and explain how the readings were so off. He never heard back from the city, but now when he checks his bill online, it has been corrected to its normal amount.

Still, he is not satisfied.

"I have nothing in writing saying I don't owe that much," he said. "I still want to figure out what's going on and how to prevent this from happening again to me and to other people."

McCormick checked into Templeton's case and said there was an "obstruction to his meter for three months," so the Public Utilities Department had to do "an estimated reading."

When the department was able to read Templeton's meter, they saw "he was underpaying and then billed him to catch him up," McCormick said.

"Then we found out it was a misread," he said. "We reread the meter, and as of today he owes us no money."

McCormick confirmed that meant the original estimated reading of Templeton's meter was actually correct.

The city auditor, Eduardo Luna, said his office was already planning to audit the Public Utilities Department's customer service division, but on Tuesday, he officially notified the department he was expanding the scope of the audit.

"We will focus on customer billing issues related to the recent news and social media reports of excessively high water bills," Luna wrote to Vic Bianes, the director of the Public Utilities Department, or PUD. "We plan to review PUD's data acquisitions and billing procedures for the period of July 1, 2016 through January 31, 2018."

Luna told KPBS his office will be looking at multiple explanations for the high bills, including human error, computer error, water leaks and high water use. He said there may not be just one answer, but that some chunk of high bills may be caused by one factor and another chunk by another factor.

He said the audit will be done by the end of June, if not sooner.

But residents with bills for thousands of dollars are still expected to pay, or their water will be shut off. So Councilwoman Bry is asking the Public Utilities Department to allow people to pay an average amount based on their previous year's bill until the audit is complete.

"It's really important for people to have trust in government, to trust that the bill they get is accurate," she said.

City Councilwoman Barbara Bry has asked the city auditor, Eduardo Luna, to examine the public utilities department after getting almost 100 complaints from constituents about abnormally high water bills.

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