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How To Know If You Were One Of The San Diegans Overcharged For Water

Sprinklers water grass in El Cerrito in this undated photo.

Photo by Claire Trageser

Above: Sprinklers water grass in El Cerrito in this undated photo.

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

GUEST:

Eduardo Luna, city auditor, city of San Diego


Transcript

At least 2,750 water customers in San Diego had bills that were corrected or need to be corrected in 2017, according to an audit released last week. But how will San Diegans know whether they are on that list?

City Auditor Eduardo Luna said his office sent a list of the customers with incorrect bills to the Public Utilities Department, but does not know what the department will do with it.

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

City spokeswoman Katie Keach said in an email to KPBS that all customers who had incorrect bills should have received a corrected bill, "whether the adjustment was triggered by their complaint, or (the Public Utilities Department) investigation."

"For the most part, those customers who complained directly to (the Public Utilities Department) were informed by staff that they would receive a corrected bill," she said.

Luna spoke to KPBS Midday Edition to provide more details on the audit.

Q: The most common reasons cited for the overcharging is human error. How did that happen?

A: The system that we have predominantly relies on meter readers who go out physically in the field and read the meters. It's a physically demanding job. There are a lot of meters they have to read each day and you're entering code, you have very few seconds to go to each house and enter the codes, so it's easy to in some cases make mistakes. But given the total number of bills that were read last year, 1.3 million, it's a very very low percentage, one in 500.

Q: One of the things that you found during the audit is that some meter readers were able to bypass an accuracy check. What was out about?

A: Each meter reader has a handheld device. In that device, there are controls that are embedded to prevent errors from occurring. What we had found is that some of the meter readers had access to a code they allowed to override when they had entered incorrect information.

Q: And why would they do that?

A: The procedure would require the supervisor to come in to the field where they were at, and it is a lot easier for them to override the control, to share passwords so to speak, or share the trouble codes.

Q: There was one meter reader who entered hundreds of incorrect reads and apparently 10 water meter readers who were responsible for 70 percent of the errors. Why weren't those mistakes caught before the bills went out?

A: The majority of the rebillings that were done or the checks that were done were caught before. And in some cases some do slip through the cracks, just given the sheer volume of implausible reads and reviews that are taking place each day.

Q: It seems odd that so many errors should pop up in one year. Did you find any reason for that?

A: In terms of the error rate, we didn't go back and compare to the error rate to previous years. But from our perspective, we looked at the totality of the total number of bills that were issued, you're issuing 1.3 million bills, and the actual number of errors that went out, incorrect bills that went out to customers, was 2,750. It's a really low percentage. You know and I think the problem the city has is residents are expecting accurate bills each and every time and it's very important in terms of establishing trust that you get those bills correct.

Q: Now there was speculation that the introduction of so-called smart meters might be the cause of the overcharging. Those are smart readers that are read on the Internet, there's no meter reader that has to go out and actually look at the meter. What did you find? Were these smart meters involved in the overcharging?

A: We found that the smart meters were actually fairly accurate in their readings. We are doing a comprehensive audit of the implementation of the smart meters. Hopefully we'll be able to complete that audit in the next couple months and really get complete answers with regards to the accuracy in the implementation and rollout of the smart meters.

Q: Now your report also talks about the effect of water rate hikes on what customers see on their bills. Were some of the customer complaints explained simply by the price of water going up?

A: That was one of the factors that we looked at. You know rates did go up. There is a tiered pricing and then you had in December an extended billing cycle, which is normally 60 days, extended to 70 days. And that's where we found that the department could have done a better job of communicating to customers that, 'Hey we're going to extend the billing cycle an extra 10 days, rates are going up,' so there was a surprise for a lot of customers, myself included.

Q: So they saw the huge water bill that they didn't expect and it wasn't necessarily because of somebody read the meter wrong, it was because the price of water went up and the length of time they were paying for extended?

A: Correct.

Q: So along with the audit you've issued some recommendations to the Public Utilities Department and they've agreed to them. What are some of those key recommendations?

A: There's a series of recommendations that we're making for them to improve their oversight over the meter readers. You want to ensure that you develop some metrics to assess your performance, to determine what the average time is to complete the route, the number of errors that occurred, and being able to really review their performance on an ongoing basis, on strengthening the controls to prevent the override of controls that had occurred.

Q: Any more?

A: There are several that cover from improving customer service to really strengthening their outreach in terms of ensuring that the bills are accurate. I think these series of recommendations that we're making are going to go a long way to improving how meters are read in the city, until you do have a point in the future where you do have smart meters. But in the short term, I think there's a lot of work the department has to do and I think they're committed to doing so.

Q: Who's charged with monitoring to see if the Public Utilities Department does indeed straighten up its act in regard to the accuracy of water bills?

A: On the day to day level, you have the director of the department and you have a deputy chief operating officer who oversees that director. More importantly, we are presenting the results of this audit to the Audit Committee on Monday, then later next week to the Environment Committee, so you have council members who will be also overseeing the implementation of these reviews. I know that Audit Committee Chair Lorie Zapf has called for ongoing reporting of the progress of implementing these recommendations on a regular basis to the Audit Committee, so there will be some oversight.

Q: As you mentioned, this inaccuracy in the water bills only affected a rather small percentage of the total of people who get water bills in San Diego, but those people were quite upset about it. They filled public hearings and made a lot of complaints. What do you have to say to those people after conducting this audit?

A: It comes down to the fundamental issue of trust. People expect that when they are receiving a water bill, that it's going to be accurate, they're going to be charged for the water used. And I think it's one of the most basic tenets that we have between the city and our residents that we should be able to provide them with an accurate water bill. I think importantly what you heard yesterday, you had the mayor committing to reforms and making improvements. They're well aware of the importance of being accurate because it's fundamental to trusting our government. I think this audit that was independent goes a long way to improving that trust.

Kris Arciaga,

At least 2,750 water customers in San Diego had bills that were corrected or need to be corrected in 2017, according to an audit released last week. But how will San Diegans know whether they are on that list?

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