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San Diego water woes | City auditor urged water department to notify customers about withheld bills back in 2018

San Diego water customers have flooded CBS 8 with stories of bills that were withheld for years. We have unearthed a 2018 city audit that warned this was happening.

SAN DIEGO — In San Carlos, a resident waited just over one year for his water bill. When the bill finally arrived, it was for $11,000.

In San Diego's Birdland neighborhood, a resident received 10 months' worth of bills, all in two days.

Meanwhile, in Linda Vista, a homeowner was shocked to see that she owed $7,000 for several months of missing bills.

Over in Santaluz, one couple hadn't received a bill for 16 months before getting notified that they had two weeks to pay their $16,000 water bill.

These are just four of the dozens of examples of San Diego residents who contacted CBS 8 about oversized water bill charges and missing bills. 

They are not alone.

A city spokesperson told CBS 8 that the city is now investigating up to 28,000 water bills for various reasons, including high and low water usage, misread or broken water meters, or suspected leaks. 

Yet as the department investigates the bills, staff does nothing to notify the residents, which means bills are withheld for months without any customer notification. 

During that time, as was the case with the homeowner in San Carlos, who had an underground leak, over a million gallons of water could have been wasted before the water department sent a notification. 

And while dozens of water customers have contacted CBS 8 about their personal water woes, CBS 8 has found this is not a new issue. The city's Public Utilities Department has been called out for failing to notify customers when anomalies are found on their water bills as far back as 2018.

In July 2018, the San Diego City Auditor looked at the Public Utilities Department's track record in billing and found several issues, one of which was, according to the audit, sending notifications to customers whose bills were under investigation.

Reads the 2018 audit, "To improve customer satisfaction, the Public Utilities Department (PUD) should communicate with customers before anticipated bill-impacting activities. Specifically, PUD should [n]otify a customer when their meter reading is under review for a prolonged period that may impact their billing schedule or result in receiving multiple bills simultaneously..."

In its report, the Office of the City Auditor said that to ensure accountability, transparency, and responsive service levels, the Public Utilities Department "can communicate ongoing internal activities associated with customers’ accounts, including notifying customers when their bills are under review or delayed; when customers might receive multiple bills simultaneously; and when a billing dispute is resolved."

In fact, then Public Water Department Director Vic Bianes agreed with the auditor's assessment. In a July 2018 message, Bianes said the department planned to create "[Standard operating procedures] to help manages issues related to water bills."

At the time, Bianes ensured that the department would implement the new procedures by October 2018.

Bianes, however, did not stay in the city long enough to ensure the new procedures would be adopted. Bianes resigned in 2018 following reports of mismanagement inside the city's utilities department. 

A new director, Shauna Lorance, was hired in May 2019 to take over. 

Lorance once headed the Monterey County Water Resources Agency. 

According to public records obtained by CBS 8, the billing issues inside the water department continued during Lorance's time at the city. 

In a June 2021 memo, Lorance notified city council members that the city's newly established water portal had a glitch and that water bills and notifications were not sent out. 

In February 2022, Lorance retired, and the city hired its current director, Juan Carlos Guerreiro.

Yet, despite the change in leadership, thousands of water customers are still not getting their bills.

CBS 8 has asked the city repeatedly to sit down with Mr. Guerreiro to discuss what his department is doing to address the billing problems. A city spokesperson told CBS 8 that the city denied our request.

In a statement, a city spokesperson instead told CBS 8 that the city is working to install software that will notify customers of missing bills. While not specific on an exact implementation date, the spokesperson said the software update should be "completed by the fall."

As for why bills are not getting sent, the spokesperson said the issues come down to staffing.

"When accounts require staff investigation, the bills are delayed until the investigation is resolved. The Public Utilities Department’s process is to notify a customer via phone, email, or letter before releasing multiple bills. Due to staffing challenges, the Public Utilities Department is, unfortunately, unable to investigate each account immediately."

The city spokesperson suggested that customers who have not received a bill call the city despite the undeniably long wait times.

"We are always willing to work with our customers. We understand phone and email response times are long, but we encourage customers to reach out if they haven’t received a bill. While it may seem overwhelming to receive more than one bill all at once, customers can pay off their past-due balance over time with no penalty or interest charged. Any customer who did not timely receive their water utility bill and had a leak during that billing period can contact the Public Utilities Department at 619-515-3500 and request an adjustment."

CBS 8 did reach out to the Office of the City Auditor.  In a statement, Joseph Picek, a principal performance auditor with the City Auditor's Office, said, 

"In 2018, in response to concerns over high water bills, the Office of the City Auditor conducted a Performance Audit of the Public Utilities Department’s Water Billing Operations. Among other identified issues, we found that PUD did not notify customers in advance when their bills were under review or delayed and when customers might receive multiple bills at once. As a result, we recommended that PUD notify a customer when their meter reading is under review for a prolonged period, particularly when the department's review may impact a customer's billing schedule or result in the customer receiving multiple bills at the same time. According to PUD, it is working with the Department of IT on an SAP enhancement which would allow for a letter or email notification to be sent to any customer who did not receive a bill due to the account being under review. In addition, PUD is testing a bill release process for higher-than-normal bills. We’ve recently confirmed that the recommendation is still not implemented, which will be outlined in our forthcoming recommendation follow-up report to be issued by early September.”

At CBS 8, we are always Working for You and our community. This is a station promise that we will go the extra mile to solve a problem our audience can’t solve themselves. We want to hear your ideas on how we can cover and help our community. If you have a story idea, please email us at workingforyou@cbs8.com.

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