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City Working On New Efforts To Prevent Future Water Bill Overcharges

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

Credit: Scott Templeton

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

Adding new customer service staff and retraining employees in the city's Public Utilities Department are among the efforts put in place amid three separate audits underway in the wake of the discovery earlier this year of a wave of residential water bill overcharges, a council committee was told Thursday.

Staff from the city auditor's office and the utilities department gave an update to the San Diego City Council's Environment Committee about efforts to investigate and remediate the billing issues.

RELATED: Water Customers Invited To Air Concerns At Committee Meeting

City officials in February discovered problems with some customers' water bills after hearing weeks of complaints. Some residents saw their charges skyrocket by as much as 400 percent due to what city officials say was one employee's misreading of meters.

Faulconer last month said city staff believed the problem was limited to 343 residents in specific north San Diego neighborhoods, but many have questioned whether billing problems extend beyond that.

Video by Katie Schoolov

City Auditor Eduardo Luna told the committee he is leading three audits of the utilities department: on its billing practices, customer service operations and water meters.

"We're going to be in the PUD for quite a while," he said.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer last month said the auditing was being fast- tracked and reports would be ready by June at the latest.

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

The utilities department itself is conducting its own top-down review and Faulconer gave Director Vic Bianes the power to make changes to procedures as he sees fit.

Since February, Bianes said the department has:

— created a log to track customer information and complaints obtained at community meetings focused on the billing issues. Customer service calls are tracked separately.

— conducted refresher training for all staff involved in billing and customer service.

— investigated every customer billing complaint.

— supervisors reviewing daily meter reading reports and signing off on them.

RELATED: Utilities Department Announces Over 300 Water Customers Were Overcharged

— waived the $66 fee that is normally charged for "meter controversy" tests; and

— added staff to reduce call waiting times and expanded customer service hours.

If staff determines customers are due a refund, they issue a bill credit if the amount is under $50 unless the customer requests a check. Customers with refunds above $50 receive a check automatically.

The utilities department is working with Luna's office to determine the parameters that automatically flag unusually high water usage and prompt a review of a customer's bill.

Customers with billing concerns can attend three upcoming sessions. The first one is this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Public Utilities Department, 9192 Topaz Way. Another session will be held March 24 at that location from 9 a.m. to noon. The third session will also be held March 24 — at Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, 404 Euclid Ave., from 2 to 5 p.m.

Customers can also contact the department at (619) 515-3500, or email customercare@sandiego.gov.

Adding new customer service staff and retraining employees in the city's Public Utilities Department are among the efforts put in place amid three separate audits underway in the wake of the discovery earlier this year of a wave of residential water bill overcharges, a council committee was told Thursday.

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