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City To Expedite Audit To Answer Why Hundreds Of San Diego Water Bills Are So High

Vic Bianes, San Diego Public Utilities Director, speaks at a news conference ...

Photo by Jade Hindmon

Above: Vic Bianes, San Diego Public Utilities Director, speaks at a news conference about customers being overcharged on their water bills, Feb. 15, 2018. Also in the photo is Mayor Kevin Faulconer (left), City Councilmembers Lorie Zapf and Chris Cate (right).

The audit of the city utilities department's water billing procedures is being fast-tracked and expanded, Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced Thursday, as officials seek more answers about how 343 residents were overcharged by as much as $420 due to one employee's misreading of water meters.

Residents began raising questions about their bills with city officials at the start of the year and, disappointed with the response, many went to local media in an effort to get more thorough answers. Some were told by the Public Utilities Department that there was nothing erroneous about their bills.

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

Because of these questions, Councilwoman Barbara Bry asked the city auditor to examine the Public Utilities Department. That audit was initially supposed to be released by the end of June.

Then earlier this month, before the audit was released, the department announced that there were major problems with some customers' bills.

The department did an internal review for customers in Carmel Valley, Mira Mesa, Rancho Bernardo and Rancho Penasquitos and found that a problem related to meter reading led to overcharges. Of 2,041 meters in that area, 343 were misread, resulting in overcharges ranging from $186 to $420, according to the department.

The department has already sent some reimbursement checks, and customers should begin receiving them in the mail this week, Faulconer said. He added that the employee who misread the 343 meters is no longer employed by the city.

RELATED: San Diego Utilities Department Director Answers Questions About Overcharged Water Bills

However, the department has not yet checked the bills of customers in the rest of the city. That examination would be part of the audit.

On Thursday, Faulconer called for the audit to be sped up to be finished this spring.

"Over the last month too many of our customers have been inconvenienced," Faulconer said. "That's why I have asked our city's independent auditor, Eduardo Luna, to make an audit of the city's Public Utilities Department his top priority."

Bry released a statement on Thursday after Faulconer's announcement that said, "I am glad to see the mayor taking a serious step toward addressing the citywide issue of unexplained spikes in water bills today by supporting an audit I called for several weeks ago and by seeking to expedite the audit so that ratepayers will get answers faster about the reasons for these dramatic increases.

"Earlier this week, I met with City Auditor Eduardo Luna to encourage him to also include in the audit a review of the water department’s procurement policies and procedures and installation of smart meters and related software," she added.

The audit will also explore the role that smart meters may have played in the overcharging. The electronic meters "remove the human element" of meter reading and are meant to be more efficient. The city plans to install the meters in all homes by 2020.

Faulconer also directed the utilities department to conduct its own internal "top-down" review and has empowered its director, Vic Bianes, to make changes to procedures as he sees fit.

RELATED: City To Host Workshop For Water Customers Who Were Overcharged

What's more, each customer who comes to the department with a billing concern will have their bills reviewed, he said.

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 mayor's office.

Residents who think they may have been overcharged can come to the Mira Mesa Senior Center, 8460 Mira Mesa Blvd., between 5:30 and 7 p.m. Thursday for a workshop hosted by Councilman Chris Cate. They should bring their two most recent water bills.

They can also call (619) 515-3500 or email customercare@sandiego.gov.

Another workshop hosted by Councilwoman Barbara Bry will be held Feb. 21 at 5:30 p.m. at La Jolla Riford Library, 7555 Draper Ave.

The audit of the city utilities department's water billing procedures is being fast-tracked and expanded, Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced Thursday, as officials seek more answers about how 343 residents were overcharged by as much as $420 due to one employee's misreading of water meters.

City News Service contributed to this story.

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