San Diego Utilities Department Director Answers Questions About Overcharged Water Bills
Friday, February 9, 2018
Credit: Associated Press
San Diego's Public Utilities Department says one employee is to blame for overcharging more than 340 customers in Rancho Bernardo, Carmel Valley, Rancho Penasquitos, and Mira Mesa on their water bills. Those customers will be getting refunds or credits for the overpayment.
In a press release Thursday, the department said the now former employee misread water meters in that area, but the department is also investigating complaints of overcharging in other areas of the city.
Michael Vogl, the deputy director of the Public Utilities Department's Customer Support Division, spoke to KPBS Midday Edition's Maureen Cavanaugh about the news. Here is that conversation.
Q: Now it's reported that for several weeks when complaints about incredibly high water bills started to come in, the Public Utilities Department just thought customers might be mistaken. How did you discover that the water meters had been misread?
A: Well certainly as part of investigating all of the cases as we committed to do at the beginning of this, we determined in these particular locations these 343 locations that meters were misread and it was in a concentrated area primarily because there was an unusually high number of complaints in the specific areas.
Q: How sure is the department that this was due to one employee?
A: Well I'm not going to comment on the personnel issue but we are certain that we've identified any cases that would be specific to this specific situation where they were concentrated in these particular areas. And we've looked citywide at all of our meter readings to ensure that customers can and be assured that they're accurate. We also over the next 60 days we will be rereading meters for all 250,000 customers using the new accountability items that we've put in place to ensure that this doesn't happen again in the future.
Q: Now I mentioned that this is a former city employee who is apparently responsible for these overcharges. Is that correct a former city employee?
A: Yes that's correct.
Now did that employee also read meters in other parts of the city, for example, more than 100 customers have complained about unreasonably high water bills in La Jolla. Could that be that person as well?
A: Our meter readers read meters all over the city. So it's always possible that there could be other cases of misreads. But we found no other indications that this that this particular incident impacted other areas. Again we're reading meters for all customers over the next 60 days using these additional accountability steps to ensure that all reads are accurate.
Q: What other factors besides human error might be at work here, if someone sees their water bill and thinks it's way too high?
A: Oftentimes it could be related to the customers' use. Obviously, we've had very warm weather and dry conditions for several months, especially through December. You could have a leak or other issues such as that that would also impact the customer's usage and thereby increase the amount of their bill.
Q: Does anyone at the department routinely double check water meter readings as a kind of control check?
A: Yes and we that's part of the accountability measures we've put in place is to ensure that that's happening and that we could document that that's happening on a daily basis. So as of January 30th supervisors are now required to review and sign off on all meter reading daily on a daily basis. In addition, the city is evaluating changing some internal controls that automatically flag and kick out what I would call meter readings that don't seem consistent with the customer's normal usage pattern for review and then correction if necessary.
Q: Now the press release put out by the Public Utilities Department said that you'll be adding security protocols to ensure that only designated staff has the ability to input data. Who was able to input before?
A: This really just has to do with some of these internal controls to make sure that the internal controls within our handheld devices and so forth are working effectively. There's really nothing more to add to that.
Q: OK. And some of these measures that you talked about in the press release that you've been talking to us about are they new or are they just going to be increased after this mistake was made public?
A: Both. Some were already in place but it wasn't clear whether they were being performed on a daily basis, such as the supervisor review. There are other things that we were putting in place over and above that such as spot-checking meter reads on a daily basis, randomly checking reads that are taken to ensure that they're accurate.
Q: The city auditor will be conducting an investigation of the Public Utilities Department because of this. Do you foresee any repercussions over this matter?
A: I think we need to gain back the trust of our customers and ensure that they are confident that the bills they receive and the reads we take from their meters are accurate. We don't want any customers to be overcharged. We want customers to only be charged for the amount that they actually owe.
Q: Now the city is in the process of replacing old water meters with advanced metering infrastructure or smart meters. Do you expect fewer problems with them?
A: Obviously putting in smart meters in use and having those smart meters connected to an electronic system eliminates the human factor in meter reading. We would expect to see fewer errors, yes.
Q: And how far along is a water department in putting in those smart meters?
A: We have about 15,000 customers have smart meters that are actually connected to the smart meter system. We will complete the rollout of the smart meters to all customers by February of 2020.
Q: Now if someone thinks the water bills that they've gotten are too high, what do they need to do about it?
A: First look at their usage. But if they really have concerns about the amount of their bill, then we want them to give us a call so that we can look at each and every case, identify if there is any problem or give them the assistance they need to understand why their bill is the amount that it is.
Customers with questions or concerns can contact the city at 619-515-3500 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: And quickly if indeed someone has been overcharged how are they going to get paid back by the city?
A: So for these 343 customers, we will refund any credit that resulted from this correction. We will refund the anything over $50. We're doing that as we speak.
KPBS reporter Claire Trageser contributed to this story.
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