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'I apologize' | San Diego's top water official apologizes to tens of thousands of residents whose bills were not sent for months

Since 2015, San Diego's water department has withheld as many as 75,000 water bills without any notification.

SAN DIEGO — Since 2015, the city of San Diego has failed to send over a million water bills to residents and, more importantly, neglected to notify anyone that their bill is withheld. 

Over the course of several months, CBS 8 has worked for the community to get answers about why the water department failed to send bills, failed to tell customers that they weren't going to receive a bill, made their account look as if there was a zero balance while bills were investigated, and then sending multiple bills at once when the investigation concluded, sometimes as much as $16,000.

For the first time since 2018, San Diego and its top water official is responding first with an apology to the tens of thousands of San Diegans who were impacted.

"I want to apologize to our customers who haven't received any notification that their bills were held," said Juan Guerreiro, the Public Utilities Director for the city.  "I apologize to them for the operations that we're working diligently to improve."

The acknowledgment comes after CBS 8 launched its investigation into the department and after hearing from nearly 100 viewers who wrote to us alerting us of their billing issue.

Those emails were sent by residents throughout San Diego, from an 87-year-old widow whose bill was held for 18 months and when they did come it showed more than 500,000 gallons of extra water usage without any explanation and without any leaks in her home. Or, an elderly couple who are both deaf, with one of them blind, had a leak in their slab and the city failed to notify them of the extra water usage before sending a $3,000 bill. 

CBS 8 read all of those emails and worked to find answers. 

The team reached out to the city on numerous occasions and requested to sit down with Public Utilities Director Guerreiro multiple times. On August 30, the city finally agreed.

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

The good news, said Guerreiro, is that management is working diligently to send notifications to customers and expects that to happen by the end of September. The bad news for the tens of thousands who have not received a water bill, they must continue to wait for the water department to chip away at the backlog.

"By the end of September, letters will be going out to customers to notify them, said Guerreiro. "It's not a good practice, and there's a clear need to change. But we're finally getting there, which is great."

As for those whose bills were held and then ultimately received numerous bills all at once, Guerreiro told CBS 8 that his department will work with customers on payment plans.

"We're not penalizing them. It was our operations that impacted the number of bills [they received]. So we're willing to work with them on payment plans, there's no interest, no fees, nothing, nothing to penalize them. So we're willing to work with them."

Added, Guerreiro, "We know it's not an ideal situation, we apologize. And we're going to work with them to work through it and hopefully prevent it."

As for what's next, Guerreiro told CBS 8 that in addition to sending notifications by the end of September, the department is working on implementing new customer service software as well. 

Guerreiro said he is confident that his department can earn back the trust of residents while continuing to provide clean drinking water, treat wastewater, and run the second-largest public utility department in the state.

"Our team does a lot of really good work, you know, we ensure that our residents get clean, safe drinking water delivered to their houses. So we're working on a lot of really big things that we're really proud of. And I think our customers feel confident that we're going to take care of the community with water and wastewater needs. We just need to really focus on these billing challenges and get through them. We have a lot of work to do, and we know it and we're going to keep hammering away and hopefully making a lot of progress within the next month or two and then moving forward through the years."

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