Utilities Department Announces Over 300 Water Customers Were Overcharged

Thursday, February 8, 2018
By City News Service, Claire Trageser
Credit: Scott Templeton
Above: A water meter in the ground is shown at a home in Normal Heights, Dec. 24, 2017

The city utilities department announced Thursday that 343 water customers were overcharged as much as $420 due to meter misreading, possibly answering questions that left residents dumbfounded and city officials searching for solutions in recent weeks.

The Public Utilities Department completed an internal review after it, city council members, the mayor's office and local media received dozens of complaints from residents who say their bills incorrectly showed skyrocketing water usage.

RELATED: San Diego Officials Looking To Solve Mystery Of High Water Bills

The department found there was indeed a problem related to meter reading at customers in Carmel Valley, Mira Mesa, Rancho Bernardo and Rancho Penasquitos. Of 2,041 meters in that area, 323 were misread which resulted in recent overcharges ranging from $186 to $420, city staff said Thursday at the City Council Environment Committee meeting.

Those customers will be receiving refunds.

"It's very important to the PUD that we deal with this issue," Public Utilities Department Director Vic Bianes said.

There are more than 285,000 water customers in San Diego, according to the city. Additional complaints of high water bills have also been reported in other areas, including La Jolla and Normal Heights.

Bianes also sent a response to a memo from City Councilman Chris Cate that said his department was tracking and categorizing all customer complaints and taking steps to address misreads of meters, including doing tests to judge meters' accuracy, providing additional training to staff and as of Jan. 30, 2018 requiring supervisors to sign off on daily reports from water meter readers.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer last week directed the department to investigate every complaint of high water bills.

"Every bill must be accurate and anything less is unacceptable," Faulconer said in a statement. "San Diegans need to be able to trust that their bills are correct – and that every cent they pay goes to making sure we have safe, reliable water. I have directed staff to take the necessary steps to ensure that nobody pays more than they should, meters are properly read, and any mistakes are corrected immediately."

The city auditor will also be completing a review of the department's billing practices by June.

City Councilwoman Barbara Bry, who called for the audit, sent out a statement in response to a request from KPBS.

"I commend the Public Utilities Department for conducting its own internal audit to uncover discrepancies in meter reading, and I thank the department for actively participating in the review by the City Auditor," she said.

She also thanked the department for taking her suggestion of not requiring customers to make full payments if they are contesting the amount of their bill until the department completes its investigation.

Other reasons why customers' bills could have increased are a 6.9 percent rate jump that took effect on Aug. 1, a one-time billing schedule change that extended the normal 60-day billing period to up to 70 days late last year, warmer months that could contribute to increased usage and leaks in homes and irrigation systems, according to the Public Utilities Department.

Customers with questions or concerns can contact the city at 619-515-3500 or customercare@sandiego.gov.