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San Diego City Auditor's Office repeatedly warned city about withheld water bills

Since the 2018 city audit, the San Diego City Auditor has prodded the Public Utilities Department and elected officials to notify customers when their bill is held.

SAN DIEGO — Since 2018, tens of thousands of San Diego residents have not received bi-monthly water bills. In some cases, those bills were held by the San Diego Public Utilities Department for months at a time, some as long as two years. Many of those San Diego water customers then receive all the missing bills at once totaling thousands of dollars, in one instance $16,000 bills.

One thing has remained constant since 2018, San Diego's City Auditor Andy Hanau has appeared before San Diego's Public Utilities Director, city councilmembers, and representatives from Mayor Todd Gloria's Office every six months to force the department to notify customers and fix what has been a broken water billing system.

In an exclusive interview, San Diego City Auditor Andy Hanau says his office issued an audit report in 2018 showing, among other issues, that San Diego's Public Utilities Department had failed to issue 57,000 bills. The city audit report gave ten recommendations on how to improve the water department's customer service and bill issues. One of the ten recommendations was for the department to notify customers when their bills were withheld due to suspected leaks, lower-than-normal water usage, errant billing, or a host of other issues. 

Management at the city's water department agreed with the recommendations.

Five years later, however, those recommendations have not been implemented and tens of thousands of other customers are in the same boat and without their water bills.

Hanau says that he has appeared six times in front of top water department officials as well as city councilmembers since 2018 to urge the department to make that fix.

"Five years is definitely an outlier," Hanau told CBS 8 in regard to the time that it has taken the department to implement his office's suggestion. "It's not that uncommon for things to take a little longer than they initially anticipate when the audit is released, but I would say five years is definitely an outlier."

Hanau said his office is an independent city department and only makes recommendations.

Added Hanau, "It's a known issue here within the city. There's a lot of attention on it right now. It's really up to the Public Utilities Department to get it done."

But one thing is certain, said Hanau, something must be done to fix what has been a long-running problem.

"What matters to us is that the issue is addressed. If the department finds a different way of notifying the customers, or somehow eliminating the issue of bills being delayed, then that is acceptable to us. One way or the other, if a customer is going to get a delayed bill, however they do it, the customer should be notified so they can prepare for them," said Hanau.

On September 20, Hanau will once again appear before the city's Audit Committee and for the seventh time since 2018 implore the Public Utilities Department and the Mayor's Office to ensure that San Diego residents are notified when their bill is under review.

"We're here to provide the mayor, the council, and the public with independent, objective, and accurate information on how their government is performing and let them know what we recommend for how it can do better," said Hanau.

Meanwhile, for the first time since CBS 8's investigation into the missing water bills, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria's Office has issued a statement.

Reads the statement attributed to Mayor Gloria and new Chief Operating Officer Eric Dargan:

 "The longstanding systemic issues in the Public Utilities Department have created customer service failures that are unacceptable, among them the practice of holding bills in response to abnormal usage data. Delayed billing is just one of a host of complex challenges that our Public Utilities Department has been working diligently to address through a comprehensive overhaul of staffing, processes and technology. We share San Diegans’ impatience for these improvements to be completed. 

 We have made clear to our Public Utilities Department leaders that they must act with urgency -- and they are, making steady and measurable progress on needed service improvements. We’ve added a significant number of new employees to our Customer Service Division and enhanced training; substantially reduced customer service call wait times from two hours to around 30 minutes; and enhanced our online service portal to fully resolve customers’ issues more quickly. We’re changing our billing software to notify customers of usage data anomalies that are causing delayed bills so they are not surprised with multiple bills at once; that fix will be ready to deploy next month. There’s much more that must – and will – be improved in the coming months.

Rest assured, we fully recognize where our systems are failing, acknowledge customers’ frustration and are committed to pushing forward as quickly as possible to provide the excellent, efficient service San Diegans expect and deserve."

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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