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'I'm sick of waiting for answers' | San Diego councilmember responds to massive water billing issues

Councilmember Marni von Wilpert says water bill issues are the top complaints from her constituents. She is calling on the city department to fix itself.

SAN DIEGO — CBS 8 has been investigating why San Diego's Water Department has failed to send out more than a million water bills to customers, refused to notify those customers that their bill was withheld, for some as long as 24 months, and neglected to tell customers that they could be losing thousands of gallons of water in undetected leaks.  

Earlier this week, San Diego's Public Utilities Director sat down with CBS 8 and formally apologized for his department's botched operations and promised to improve.

But now, one city councilmember is demanding action and not just words from the state's second-largest water department. 

"One of the top complaints I get from residents is billing issues," San Diego City Councilmember Marni von Wilpert told CBS 8 in an interview.

WATCH:  Excerpts from CBS 8's interview with Councilmember Marni von Wilpert

The councilmember says there is a four-ring binder full of complaints from residents about billing issues, long wait times, and issues being ignored or disregarded by Utilities Department staffers.

"I'm incredibly frustrated," said von Wilpert. "The Public Utilities is failing the citizens of San Diego. At every single budget hearing, I've asked, 'What is it that the water department needs to fix this issue? What technology? What phone systems?' My colleagues and I said we would give it to them and to just please fix this. Well, it hasn't been fixed. I'm sick of hearing excuses. I've been hearing this ever since I got elected."

Councilmember von Wilpert says residents shouldn't have to contact their councilmember for help dealing with what is an essential service. But they do.

"I've told all my constituents if you have problems with the water department then contact us, don't get stuck waiting on hold for two and a half hours just trying to pay your water bill. We can help and we have helped hundreds of residents. "

Councilmember von Wilpert told CBS 8 that since taking office she has asked department officials many of the same questions that CBS 8 has. " I have met with them on Zoom almost every month asking where is the new phone system you keep talking about. Why can't you just send a letter out to the residents if their bills going to be held? This is not rocket science. It shouldn't take this long."

So, moving forward, what are the city councilmember and her colleagues on the city council doing to make sure that change will happen?

"I am so frustrated and fed up that I'm actually going down there to try and see what exactly it is they're doing all day. I know we have a lot of wonderful, hardworking employees, I do really value the water department for providing clean and safe water to everyone. That's no question. However, it shouldn't be so hard for residents to contact customer service to get their bills."

Concluded the councilmember, "I'm sick of waiting for answers. So hopefully it will change soon."

She is not alone. 

CBS 8 reached out to all city councilmembers for a comment on the deluge of issues inside the water department. 

District 7 Councilmember Raul Campillo's Office told CBS 8 in a statement, "Councilmember Campillo is as frustrated as those who are affected by this issue.  He will continue to push strongly for improved services through direct conversations with the City’s Chief Operating Officer. At a time when the sky-high cost of living is already burdening so many working families, this issue is unacceptable and must be fixed."

District 4 Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe's Office wrote, "My office is aware of the billing issues with the Public Utilities Department and will continue working with constituents and city staff to help understand and rectify the problem.”

While Councilmember Kent Lee's Office told CBS 8, "While these negative impacts on our residents are certainly concerning, we understand that PUD is very much aware of the issue and is actively working on significant updates to both technologies and processes to address it. We encourage any District 6 residents to reach out to our office for assistance if they encounter any issues and we will assist you. "

Councilmembers Joe LaCava, Sean Elo-Rivera, Jennifer Campbell, Vivian Moreno, and Stephen Whitburn did not respond to CBS 8's request for comments before this story was published.

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