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San Diego officials report progress in water department overhaul

Posted at 4:33 PM, Mar 20, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-20 20:27:06-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — City leaders say they're making strides in overhauling its water department after a disastrous 2018.

In a presentation to the Audit Committee Wednesday, city public utilities managers said they had implemented about a dozen reforms after a series of missteps last year.

In 2018, thousands of San Diegans received erroneous water bills, which an audit largely blamed on human error. A later audit found that some meter box and lid replacement workers were fudging time cards amid a 22,000 unit backlog.

RELATED: New round of complaints on high water bills

"We needed to change the culture and make sure that all these issues were addressed," said Johnnie Perkins, San Diego's deputy chief operating officer.

Perkins said the Public Utilities Department has implemented new, efficient work strategies. These include getting workers out to the field faster, overhauling how customer service representatives interact with residents, and using software to pick routes that make sense. Previously, for example, workers could be sent to do water meter work in Rancho Bernardo only to be sent to San Ysidro.

The city auditor is currently monitoring the progress.

RELATED: Audit shows City sent thousands of faulty water bills

But Rodney Fowler Sr., who heads the union that represents meter replacement workers, said the changes aren't addressing obvious issues: The department is understaffed, and the vehicle fleet is unreliable.

"They're 10 years old," said Fowler Sr., president of AFSCME, AFL-CIO Local 127. "A private contractor would never use a service vehicle 10 years because it starts to cost them money."

Perkins said the city could contract out for workers to address the backlog, and is currently assessing investments in new equipment.

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City Councilman Scott Sherman, who chairs the audit committee, said the issue is not as simple as staffing and equipment.

"It needs to be a give and take," he said. "We need to do some of those things that the unions want to do, and they need to do some of the things that we want to do."