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San Diego Water Department Sent 2,750 Incorrect Bills In 2017, Audit Found

A water meter at Erie Drive in Clairemont is shown, March 9, 2018.

Photo by Claire Trageser

Above: A water meter at Erie Drive in Clairemont is shown, March 9, 2018.

An audit released Thursday of San Diego's Public Utilities Department prompted by reports of sky-high water bills found that last year 2,750 water bills had to be changed after customers received them. That's out of 1.3 million customers billed.

The audit also found that almost 19,000 water meter reads were corrected last year before the bills were even sent to customers. That's about 1.4 percent of water customers.

About 1.6 percent of water customers saw bills that doubled or more than doubled from the previous billing cycle in 2017, according to the audit. But some of those bills were due to an actual increase in water use, a longer billing cycle and increased water rates.

Reported by Katie Schoolov

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

After reports in the media of high water bills and calls to city council members complaining of similar issues, Councilwoman Barbara Bry in February asked the Office of the City Auditor to look into the department's billing practices.

In a written response, the Public Utilities Department said it would make changes recommended by the audit and would come up with a plan to track customer complaints by October.

While the audit was finished Tuesday, the Public Utilities Department asked for additional time to prepare a response, according to city spokeswoman Katie Keach.

In response to the audit, Mayor Kevin Faulconer asked the Public Utilities Department to make several changes by January, including overhauling programs that analyze the number of water meter misreads, estimated bills and customer call volume to flag errors before a bill is sent to a customer, boosting supervisors' reviews of employees and accelerating the use of smart water meters.

"Our customers must be able to trust when they receive their bill that it accurately reflects how much water they use, no more and no less," he said.

"We have to change the culture of this department in order to consistently deliver the excellent service that San Diegans expect," he added. "I have directed staff to immediately begin reforming water operations by implementing the recommended changes and rebuild the trust that has been lost.”

In addition to this audit, an additional audit from an outside firm looked at reasons behind the high bills. Faulconer also said he was asking the Deputy Chief Operating Officer for Infrastructure and Public Works to do a third-party examination of the Public Utilities Department’s management structure, internal controls, processes and protocols, and employee oversight. The city’s Performance & Analytics Department is also conducting an analysis of billing data.

Human Error Likely Cause

The audit found the most common reason for billing errors were human error and estimating water meter reads instead of actually reading water meters.

Human error was likely caused by mistakes when entering a water meter's amount into a handheld device. According to the audit, the device is supposed to lock after three unsuccessful attempts to enter different meter read values, and once a device is locked only a supervisor can unlock it. However, the audit found through interviews with employees that some know a workaround to bypass the need for a supervisor to unlock the device.

When reports of high bills first gained media attention earlier this year, the Public Utilities Department blamed one employee for entering bad water meter reads and said that employee no longer works for the city. The audit found that employee made 625 of the reads on the 2,750 bills that had to be corrected.

But that does not account for all the incorrect bills. The audit found that in 2017, 10 water meter readers accounted for more than 70 percent of the bills that had to be corrected after the bills were already sent out.

"While (the Public Utilities Department) only identified one meter reader, the controls may have been circumvented by other meter readers as well," the audit states.

Estimated Meter Reads Also A Problem

The audit found that sometimes, water meter readers can't view a water meter, either because it is broken, scratched, inaccessible or too difficult to locate. When that happens, the meter reader skips the read and instead enters a trouble code into his or her handheld device, which then causes the billing system to estimate the water meter amount.

Those estimates could also contribute to the water billing issues, according to the audit.

The report also said that when a water meter reader enters a trouble code, it is meant to flag the water meter as needing repair. But that doesn't always happen. Some department employees told the auditor's office that supervisors told them not to enter trouble codes for broken meters "due to a backlog of duplicate service requests."

RELATED: How To Check Your Own Water Meter

Smart Water Meters Not To Blame

The city is slowly switching to smart water meters that could be read remotely without sending a person to look at the meter and enter the amount on a handheld device.

The audit found that these new smart meters accounted for about 2 percent of the readings that were flagged for additional review in 2017, compared to 7 percent that were done using the old human-based method.

Audit Recommends Improved Customer Communication

The audit also found that a longer billing cycle and increased water rates lead to some of the bill increases, but stated that the Public Utilities Department did not do a good job communicating these changes to its customers.

It also found that calls to the department skyrocketed at the beginning of 2018 when reports of high water bills were covered in the local media and that in February 2018, 23 percent of those calls were abandoned because it took too long for someone to come to the phone.

The audit found that some people who did reach an employee never received a resolution to their issue, never received a call back, or "were given reasons that placed the blame on the customer."

Recommendations For Change

The audit made 10 recommendations for change within the Public Utilities Department. Those include regularly checking their system for identifying billing problems, creating employee performance metrics and finding ways to reduce errors, requiring meter readers to enter a trouble code every time there's an issue with a meter and improve supervision of water meter readers' accuracy.

City Auditor Eduardo Luna said the audit was "one of the most important audits my office has conducted because residents expect and deserve that the water bills they receive are accurate and reflect actual water consumption."

"The percentage of inaccurate readings that pass through the PUD billing system is low," he added. "To regain the public trust, (Public Utilities Department) executives will need to strengthen their oversight of the meter readers."

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

San Diego Water Department Sent 2,750 Incorrect Bills In 2017, Audit Found

GUEST:

Eduardo Luna, city auditor, city of San Diego


Transcript

An audit released Thursday of San Diego's Public Utilities Department prompted by reports of sky-high water bills found that last year 2,750 water bills had to be corrected after customers received them. That's out of 1.3 million customers billed.

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