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San Diegans Are Blowing A Gasket Over New Water-Sewer Billing System

City Of San Diego Water Customers Challenged By New Electronic Billing System
Public Utilities Department spokesman Mike VoglKelly Thornton, Reporter Investigative Newsource

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Ever get a computer upgrade intended to make your life easier, and then find you can't do all the things you used to be able to do? That's the kind of position the San Diego City public utilities department finds itself in. A report by the Investigative News Source finds the department has been deluged by customer complaints ever since changing billing systems last July. And the city is now using its very tight funds to pay overtime for city employees working nights and weekends to fix the problems. I'd like to welcome my guest, Kelly Thornton is reporter for Investigative News Source, that is a journalism nonprofit based at San Diego state university. Kelly, welcome to the show. THORNTON: Thanks, Maureen. CAVANAUGH: And Mike Vogel is here, public utilities department spokesman for the City of San Diego. Welcome VOGEL: I'm happy to be here. CAVANAUGH: Now, Kelly, what was this computer upgrade supposed to do? THORNTON: Well, I think it was supposed to improve customer service and make it easier to pay bills electronically. It went live in July CAVANAUGH: What kinds of problems are the people you spoke with reporting about this new billing system in THORNTON: Well it, kind of runs the gamut. Some people said they couldn't log onto the new system, their passwords had been dropped or changed, they couldn't pay their bill online, autopay didn't working their payments were applied to someone else's bill, they were double billed or not billed at all. A lot of different things. The CAVANAUGH: And apparently Marty Emerald is one of the people who reported having problems THORNTON: Yes. She said she tried to switch service to a new address online and wasn't able to do that. Of CAVANAUGH: Now, Mike, the public utilities department every sees this system. How big a problem do you see this as being? VOGEL: well, most of the problem results from customers having difficulty getting in to talk to our agents. Since we went live, we have had a higher number of calls related to folks having to register in our new customer portal. In the first 90 days, we've successfully registered over 50,000 customers in the new portal. But our customers have varying degrees of -- varying preferences, varying skills, and some need a lot of support, and others don't. So obviously that's impacted our call center. We've also had a lot of folks contacting us because of billing concerns. Now, these aren't actual issues with their bills, but we went live with the system during a period of time when bills were going up because of increased summer water consumption, we eliminated our mandatory water restrictions in April, and then we annually change or adjust our single family residents' sewer rates in July as well. All of those things have an impact on the customer bills, because we went live with the new system, a lot of customers assumed it's a problem with their bill, they called in, it turns out it's not, and we walk through that with them, and explain what's really resulted in their bill going up. After we went live, we did have an issue with about 5,900 bills that went out to customers, we sent out about 150 bills every month. Those bills were less than one day's mailing of billings to customers. We identified that problem before most of those customers even received the bill. And we resolved it within three working days after that, sent out I new bill, those customers have very little impact. And those customers weren't calling us because they didn't even realize the problem had occurred. CAVANAUGH: Now, I know that, Kelly, you have some really exasperated e-mails that you included as part of your report, and also the exasperated comments of one woman who is with us on the phone line right now, Marjorie Forbes, from Mission Hills is quoted in the Investigative News Source report, and Marge, are you with me? NEW SPEAKER: I am. CAVANAUGH: You used the new billing system to pay your water and sewer bills. Can you tell us your experience? NEW SPEAKER: I have been a customer for over 40 years, and for the last 4 or 5, I've had autopay, and I get this notice from them saying that they have a new system, and that I have to reregister. It wasn't clear whether my autopay was still going to be in effect. And so I had to call to find out if I did need to do this or if I did not need to do this. I don't know if it's lack of understanding on my part or just the way it was written. But it was almost impossible to get in touch with them. And I finally did, and I went on the system, I was able -- I have two bill, one for an apartment building I own, and one for my house. I was able to get the apartment bill onto the system. But I am completely incapable of getting the second account on. Every time I go on, it's a long wait. And it ends up, I failed again. I finally just accepted I'm going to have to pay one by snail mail, and I'll have the other one autopay CAVANAUGH: So you've gone back to pay for bills for at least one of your properties? NEW SPEAKER: I can't figure out how nod not to do that. And I don't like it because when I travel, I don't have to worry about a bill coming in or being late. It's just so much easier for me. But I've given up trying CAVANAUGH: Marjorie, thank you for joining us. And Mike, how would you respond? VOGEL: The experience that I -- that both I read earlier and what I hear from Marjorie is that she had difficulty talking to us, and working through the problem. And that's that ongoing issue that we're continuing to have with the new system as our agents become fully proficient in the new system, call durations, every call takes longer. So that reduces the number of calls that we can handle at any point in time. I agree that the scenario that Marjorie describes is not an acceptable level of service. And we're going to work extra hard, we're going to contact Marjorie, and we're going to get her registered in the new system because we don't want to lose any of our customers using our online system CAVANAUGH: Kelly, in your report, you document the case of someone who had their -- they missed payments because the online payment system was not registering their payments because it was changed. And they actually had L water shut you have. Tell us about that. VOGEL: There are a lot of different reasons why a lot of different people said they had their water shut off. Some said they paid online, and then their water was shut you off, and that's how they figured out they hadn't. Some said they received a bell or were double billed, and were trying to get through to a customer service person and couldn't get through before their water was shut off. There was one particular woman who said that a water employee came out, shut her water off, and he told her that his coworkers were working over time to reinstate service, and he had told the supervisors they should just give notices to people before shutting their water off until these problems were resolved CAVANAUGH: And about how many people are we talk become? Do you have an approximate, Kelly, about how many people might have run into really serious problems because of this computer upgrade? 123450 NO, we have asked the city in a public records request to give us various numbers, and obviously they're quite busy trying to handle inquiries from customers. So we don't have that yet. However, I do have some indication from employees about how much of a work load they have been handling. So we do know that there were as Mike has said, over 500 people who were over billed, but we also know that there have been employees handling hundreds of calls, and e-mails, over the last four months. So it's not a small number. It certainly isn't, you know, tens of thousands that I know of. But it definitely could run into the thousands. CAVANAUGH: Before I ask you questions about numbers, Mike, since there are computer problems, have you thought about -- has the public utilities department maybe thought about not shutting off water to customers until those problems are sorted out? VOGEL: We actually did both immediately after the go live of the new system, we delayed turning on all of our -- what would be called dunning processes, reminder notices, shut-off notices, and ultimately shut-off order notices. We delayed that for some people of time before we went live, and then we turned it on. When we started to experience more of a backlog of these requests, our e-mails requests, and folks having trouble getting into the call center, we stopped those processes again, delaying those processes, but finally in September, we turned them back on, because we believe that we're handling those requests in a timely manner. Now, the same exceptions that happened before in the old system, we occasionally turn off water when we shouldn't. These could be timing issue, oftentimes they're human error. Either the post office lost the payment in route, the customer wrote a wrong account number, or maybe our folks miskeyed a payment when they entered it into the system. Those things happened in the old system just like they do now. If this is a customer that -- whose water gets shut off, and believe me, we don't want to shut anyone's water off if we don't have to. If it does get shut off, our agents are empowered to waive any associated fees and expedite getting that water turned back on right away. And we do have -- for instance, if folks can't get to us on the phone, we have alternate ways -- we've opened up alternate channels they can use to get into us. For instance, if they need automated information or to report a payment, they can do that using our automated phone system. If they have for other questions, they can contact us via e-mail at customer care at San And we have folks that monitor that e-mail stream, they watch for urgent e-mails that need to be handled right away, and expedite those. We have not seen a significant number of -- or increase in these situations where water is shut off and it shouldn't be. CAVANAUGH: Right. So there has been no significant increase since the computer upgrade of water being shut off when it shouldn't be, is that what you're saying? VOGEL: Correct. And one thing to remember is that we have customers in various financial situations. And we do have a lot of customers that wait until that shut-off date to pay their bill. Well, if there are these exceptions where water gets shut off, anybody who waits until their shut off date to pay their bill, is more likely to become one of these exceptions. And so we ask folks to not wait till that shut off date, if you're going to be late, that's okay, but don't wait till that shut-off date CAVANAUGH: But you would agree that the problems with this computer software upgrade are a little bit more complex than simply the customers not being able to know how to navigate through this new system? I mean, Kelly's report have found people who've worked at the public utilities department who basically talk about the computer software basically dropping passwords and and really not working as well as it could in all circumstances. VOGEL: With any complex big system like this, you expect, and we expected to have to continue to make enhancements and changes after we went live. I would agree that we probably under estimated the length of time and the scale of the change impacts after we went live to both our customers and our staff. But we continue to work through those and address them quickly. The situation with the passwords that you talked about comes from one of these hotsheets. Ten have been issued since we went live identifying quickly information that our customer service reps need to be able to clearly communicate to customers and understand what issues there are. That was part of our planning for this post-go live period where we expect to have these issues come up. The issue with the passwords, we still haven't confirmed that that's actually an issue. What we recognize was that it seemed that we were having more people claiming that they were having trouble with their passwords than normal. So we escalated that, we have experts looking in that to make sure that it isn't a problem. CAVANAUGH: You know, I'm sure that you don't mean to do this, Mike, but you're making the customer sound a little dopey VOGEL: I don't mean to do that. And as I said, our customers all have various levels of skills and computer systems and things like that. We don't expect all of our customers to be experts on the computer. And so obviously there are issues that have come up in the system and we work through those, and we ask for support and understanding from our commerce as we work through this issue. We haves are as has been mention said, wee bringing on additional staff, trying to get them up to speed as quick as possible. These are temporary star just to weather this storm. Once we get through this, in 30 to 60 days, we will expect things will go with to where they were before we went live. CAVANAUGH: The over all computer up grade is pretty exciting, it's designed for one call to city hall. What is that supposed to do? THORNTON: What they're trying to do with this whole integrated system as far as the customer is concerned, is to allow everyone to have their own account, and they can do everything through that account, everything from pay water bills to get their business license, to pay a parking ticket, etc. That's supposed to make it convenient and easy for the customer. CAVANAUGH: Eventually. THORNTON: Right. Yeah, it's all being implemented in waves, starting back in 2007 with this whole integrated system, they first started with the foundation of it with different systems within city hall, and that was a $52 million system, and this is one of the first to directly impact customers, and there should be more waves of that in as funding becomes available. This system was for about 24 million. So they're over 70 million into this system CAVANAUGH: Mike, when do you foresee these problems being resolved? VOGEL: Again, as I said, we have some temporary staff that we're getting up to speed right now. We plan to have them on board before the end of November. That will really make the biggest impact with regards to our call center and people being able to get in and talk to us. Our customers deserve -- they both expect and deserve to be able to pick up the phone and call us and talk to us in a timely manner without having to wait on the phone for an extended period of time. And that's where we need to get. Once we get there , we'll start to get our arms around some of the work load issues and things like that, and things will return back to normal 30 to 60 days MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: 30 to 60 days. So if anybody is throwing up their hands and says forget this! I don't want to go online anymore, I want a paper bill am are you going to tell them they should give it another try? VOGEL: Absolutely. In fact, one of the things we've told our customer service representatives is if a customer gets that frustrated, let them go back -- you know, help them to go back to getting a paper bill. And then just we're follow up with them in the future and make another attempt to get them converted back over to where they need to be. We don't want this to be tough for our customers. We want to make it as easy as possible. That's why we've put in place these alternative channels for people to contact us. We've brought in additional staff from within the department to help deal with the e-mail requests, and so forth. It's not unusual right now for a customer to get a call from us or an e-mail on Saturday or Sunday. I e-mail back the customers at 9 or 10:00 at night sometimes because it's just all hands on deck trying to minimize this impact CAVANAUGH: And we are out of time right now. I want to thank my guests, public utilities department spokesman Mike Vogel, Kelly Thornton with investigative news source, thank you both. THORNTON: Thank you, Maureen VOGEL: Thank you.

By Kelly Thornton, Investigative Newsource

Since San Diego launched a new $24 million water and sewer billing system in July, thousands of ratepayers have flooded the city with complaints that their service has been cut off, they’ve been overcharged, or they can’t pay their bills online.

The debacle has forced the public utilities department to assign about 20 employees to work nights and weekends for several months just to handle the calls and emails from irate customers. The complaints and workers’ overtime continue.


“Whoever was in charge of that ought to be beaten severely about the head and shoulders,” said Marjorie Forbes of Mission Hills, who had been using auto pay for water bills for her home and an apartment building in Pacific Beach without a hitch until the new system came online. Now she’s back to paper bills for her residential account because she can’t seem to reestablish her electronic payment.

“It’s just another example of a really stupid government thing,” Forbes said. “They had a system that worked just great and had to change it.”

The problems in public utilities are the latest attributed to the city’s troubled computer system upgrade that dates back to 2007. The mess is the first application to directly impact customers.

City officials downplayed the recent problems, saying it takes time to get used to a new system.

“The system itself does work really well,” said Public Utilities Department spokesman Kurt Kidman. “It’s the interaction with our customers we don’t have at the level we want to have it at.”


The city will continue to pay time-and-a-half to employees working overtime “until we get our customers happy,” he said. “We’re making strides but we’re not where we want to be.”

Kidman said his bosses, including department Director Roger Bailey, declined to comment.

One of the disgruntled water customers was none other than City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who was unable to move service to a new address. “Oh don’t get me started. I’m kind of mad about it.”

There are scores of others who are more than “kind of mad.” They are mostly people who had set up automatic payments and passwords that disconnected when the new system launched, or people who could no longer pay their bill online. Trying to get auto pay reinstated, or make an online payment, before the water was shut off was a nightmare of desperate, unanswered emails and long sessions on hold, never reaching a live person.

Here’s a sampling of the emails Investigative Newsource, a journalism nonprofit based at San Diego State University, obtained after the launch: “I am stuck in an endless loop and I will not be able to access and pay my water/sewer bill before it is due,” one customer wrote.

Another wrote: “I have enrolled in the system but it still won’t process my payments. I am very frustrated by this as I have tried several times to enroll and the city has now charged fees and required a security deposit. Please send paper bills going forward.”

And another frustrated ratepayer wrote: “I have tried to reach your company by your website and failed – increased rage each time. I have tried to reach your company by phone several times and have given up as a lost cause.”

Point Loma resident Ellen McCannon encountered a city employee just after he’d shut off her water on a Friday afternoon in September. She never received a shut-off notice. She tried to pay her bill online and was unable to do so and was frantic to contact the city to get the water back on.

After a self-described meltdown and hours trying to reach a live person, she managed to get someone back out to her house at about 6 p.m. He told her that his colleagues were working overtime that night because of the high demand to get water turned back on.

“He said the whole billing cycle’s messed up and that we employees have actually told our management we really feel we should just be setting notices on doors,” McCannon said, quoting the water department worker who shut off and reinstated her water service on Sept. 30. “If people can’t be getting into the system to pay their bill, we shouldn’t be shutting them off.”

Water department employees said customers reported water was shut off in a few different scenarios: They thought they’d paid online, but realized too late it hadn’t gone through; they received no bill or notice; or they knew they hadn’t received a bill and tried without success to reach the city.

As of Tuesday Oct. 18, almost four months after the new system went live, a Newsource call to the utilities department was disconnected after this greeting: “We are currently experiencing a very high call volume and delayed response time. We are not able to handle your call at this time.”

Newsource is waiting for the city to answer a formal request for the number of complaints from its 260,000 customers, but Kidman said providing that information may be delayed because “our customers come first.”

Kidman said he does not believe the call volume to the department has increased. What’s increased is the time it takes customer service representatives to solve the problems, he said. And that has created a backlog.

Kidman said no employees were taken off their jobs to handle complaints; however, one employee, who has first-hand knowledge, said workers were not doing their regular jobs while answering customers’ calls and emails.

Kidman also said the city has been tracking the time employees spent working on this problem since it started in July, but the employee said the city only started doing so through codes issued last week for timecards. The employee asked not to be quoted by name out of fear of being fired.

The computer software upgrade that has been blamed for a variety of problems replaced an antiquated fragmented mainframe system. The project, begun in 2007, wound up $16 million over budget and more than a year behind schedule. The city fired the contractor, Axon Solutions Inc., and replaced it with the software’s manufacturer, SAP, one of the world’s largest business software companies.

Outside consultants, brought in when the city was the target of numerous investigations, indictments, overdue audits and plummeting credit ratings, suggested an integrated computer system would be one way of restoring the city’s financial credibility and transparency.

When the system is complete possibly in the next several years, city residents will be able to log in to their own account and pay everything from water bills to business license fees to parking fines at once. It’s what has been referred to as “One Call to City Hall.”

The final project cost was just under $52 million – $16 million over the original projected cost of $36.6 million. The public utilities billing system was an additional $24 million.

As the problems with the utility billing system began to surface in July, city officials were still hustling to fix a software problem they blamed for an eight-month delay in issuing the city’s annual 2010 financial statements and audit, documents that signal Wall Street that city finances are in order. The delay meant the city waited to refinance bonds that would have saved millions of dollars in interest.

Kidman said the first week the billing system produced 5,917 bills that incorrectly calculated sewer bills, mostly overcharging customers. The department corrected the programming glitch, sent out new bills and the problem has been solved, Kidman said.

He noted that the department forewarned customers in emails and letters about the transition to the new system. When asked whether he blamed customers, he said: “I’m sure there are some computer savvy people who have gotten in there and had problems. I’m not going to blame the customer here.”

According to city documents dated Oct. 14, the issues are not simply user error. The memos, called “Customer Information Hot Sheets,” which were created to help customer service representatives troubleshoot, indicate the system was unilaterally changing passwords and security questions.

One memo says “many but not all users” have reported their passwords are not working. “We are currently working to confirm, identify and resolve this issue but no fix has been identified at this time. We do not have an estimated date when this issue will be resolved.”

At a public board meeting July 25 of the San Diego Data Processing Corp., the city agency that provides IT services, there was no mention of the problems that have turned into a public relations fiasco.

Rather, officials praised program managers because the water billing system was two months ahead of schedule.

The meeting minutes said the system was implemented June 30 and had “an accuracy percentage of 99.2 percent” in processing 98,171 payments totaling $36.2 million. Program Manager Jane Arnold noted that the project “was a huge accomplishment and team effort.”

Investigative reporter Kelly Thornton can be reached at

This story was featured on KPBS radio and The San Diego Union-Tribune this morning. It can be read and heard by visiting For the latest, watch KPBS’ Evening Edition tonight at 6:30 p.m. Channels 11 and 711 and DTV 15-1.