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San Diego Director of Public Utilities sits down with CBS 8 in an exclusive interview to discuss rampant water billing issues

CBS 8's Shannon Handy speaks to Director Juan Guerreiro about the issues his department is facing and how it looks to correct errors and regain public trust.

Tens of thousands of San Diego residents are having their water bills withheld. Some log on to the city of San Diego's website to pay their bill and see a zero balance. The city says it withholds bills when there are unusual water readings, whether those readings show higher-than-normal usage due to a leak or lower-than-normal usage, or when the city suspects that the reading is inaccurate. 

However, as the city's water department withholds these bills to investigate, there is no notice provided to the customer that their bill is under investigation. The water department does not inform the customer that they may have a leak. Instead, the customer sees a zero balance and does not receive a bill, either online or in the mail for months and in some cases as long as two years. And, when they do receive their bills, they come at once, with some as high as $16,000.

CBS 8 has reported extensively on the issue. We spoke to customers who tell us that they have sat on hold with the water department and, in some cases, have been hung up on when getting through to a representative. CBS 8 also interviewed San Diego's City Auditor who said he has been asking for the Water Department to notify customers every six months since 2018.

On Tuesday, August 30, after repeated requests, CBS 8's Shannon Handy sat down with Director of the Public Utilities Juan Carlos Guerrerio in an exclusive interview to find out why this is happening, what his department is doing to fix the problem, how the issue has gone on so long, and how the department plans to win back trust from customers.

Guerreiro told CBS 8 that his department is focused on fixing the problems that have plagued tens of thousands of water customers for more than five years. 

The Utilities Director apologized to water customers and told CBS 8 that the department would begin sending out letters to those customers who are still waiting on their bills.

Below are excerpts from our exclusive interview with Public Utilities Director Guerreiro as well as a video of the entire interview.

Why Hasn't This Been Fixed?

First and foremost, CBS 8 wanted to know just why the City's Water Department has taken so long to fix what the city auditor found to be a more than five-year problem with notifying water customers that the department was investigating their bills.

Director Guerreiro apologized to San Diego's water customers for failing to notify them if their bill was under investigation and that a complete overhaul of the department prevented the department from implementing solutions.

"I want to apologize, it's not our intent. One of the biggest challenges we have is systemic issues throughout our billing and customer service operations. A new management team was put into place to completely overhaul our customer service and billing operations. So while right now we're we have a significant amount of work to do, that we're focused on right now, there's been a lot of work done since 2018, to address some of those issues.

"But what this management team has been really committed to doing is taking our time to work through the issues. And we really started with the people part, and getting our staff trained appropriately so they can handle issues. And in parallel, we were working on some of the IT improvements. There are a lot of enhancements that need to be made."

Guerreiro says his department has worked to better train customer service representatives to shift the focus from answering calls to resolving the customer's issues. 

Another change, Guerreiro said, was to implement new call center software to allow for quicker response times and help employees better navigate the issue.

"When we work through each one of these enhancements, we currently have 40 enhancements that are in the queue, they have to work seamlessly within that system and then with the 280,000 accounts. We don't want to go live with something before it's ready. We really want to be careful and make sure it's ready. So it has to be tested. We have to find any kinks ahead of time and then if we do find kinks, we need to make improvements We've been really methodical about making sure we don't go live with anything unless it's fully ready and fully baked, not compounding any other issues."

CBS 8 then asked that instead of waiting for complex software integration, why couldn't the city send out letters, post a message on its website warning customers about withheld bills, or even place door hangers on the doors of those customers whose bill is under investigation? 

As for posting a notification on the city's website, Guerreiro said it was "a good suggestion" and that the department is also, "working on other automated solutions where we're going to share this information and communicate with our customers."

Guerreiro says he anticipates to start sending out notices by the end of September. 

What's Next for Those With Missing Water Bills?

Guerreiro says that his department is working on a number of ways to prevent bills from being withheld. One of which is to lower the threshold that the system has for placing bills on hold.

But what about those whose bills are missing and have been for months, in some cases years?

Guerreiro says his team is working on that.

"What we want to do is look at the backlog, and look at what's a manageable frequency to start rolling these fixes out and resolving them. We have a lot of bills to investigate, and a limited number of staff to investigate the backlog. So we want to look at what's a very manageable and systematic approach to addressing all of those over time, for our customer's benefits more than ours."

Guerreiro says part of the challenge is the fact that overhauling a department while at the same time ensuring that it is running for hundreds of thousands of people, presents challenges on a number of levels. 

"We have a new management team that was put in place back in 2019," said Guerreiro. "This team is fully committed to seeing this stuff through and we're excited to see successes, but we're well aware that we still have a long way to go. And we're looking forward to continuing to work through that."

As for restoring customer trust and confidence, Guerreiro added, "Customers can trust the Public Utilities Department with the quality of our water that we send them every day. The wastewater services that we serve every day. We operate and maintain vast water and wastewater systems, nine reservoirs, three water treatment plants, and thousands of miles of pipelines. We manage a lot of facilities really well. And we want our customers to feel confident about what we're doing. And specifically with the billing issue, we also want them to feel confident that we have been doing a lot of work."

To read more about the Public Utilities Department's upcoming customer service enhancement click here.

FULL INTERVIEW | City of San Diego Public Utilities Director sits down with CBS 8

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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