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Massive water bills, poor customer service still plague San Diego Public Utilities Department

water bills in san diego story
Posted at 5:41 PM, Apr 04, 2024

A few things in San Diego are a given: Sunny skies, June gloom and late water bills.

There have been problems since late 2017 in the city of San Diego with water meter readings, billing and customer service, according to a City Auditor report.

LITTLE HAS CHANGED

In April 2024, city records show not much has changed.

Thousands of San Diegans still get late bills, have trouble getting help and are not paying on time, a Team 10 investigation has uncovered.

Customers say they are upset that problems continue, yet Mayor Todd Gloria and the San Diego City Council have significantly raised the costs of water and sewer.

Come July, water rates will have increased nearly 16%, while sewer rates have gone up 14% — and more hikes are projected.

The mayor declined repeated interview requests with ABC 10News.

But water department officials say they have implemented a series of changes to help consumers and phone wait times are down significantly.

However, when those bills arrive, they can be huge.

‘IT’S VERY FRUSTRATING'

“Finally, we got a bill after eight months, and the total was $9,183,” said Robin Gunning, a San Diego property manager. “It’s very frustrating.”

Gunning oversees an 11-unit complex on C Street, where she said the typical water bill is about $1,000 every two months.

The landlord, who covers the water payment, is working to pay off the debt, Gunning said.

9k water bill
This late water bill costs over $9,000.
Robin Gunning.jpg
Robin Gunning manages numerous properties in the San Diego area. She said at least 10 have water billing problems with the city, including one downtown that received a late bill crossing the $9,000 mark.

LARGE, UNPAID BILLS

Rachel Laing, the mayor’s spokesperson, said there’s no connection between billing problems and increased water and sewage costs.

“Rate increases have to do with the cost of water we purchase increasing, which requires passing through those costs and the cost of service increasing, which entails many factors.” Laing said in an email to Team 10.

Despite numerous promises from city leaders to fix the issues, the San Diego Public Utilities Department still can’t get it right.

Team 10, through a public records request, found that the city had held the bills for at least 42,000 of its customers since September.

That’s about how many people filled Petco Park on Opening Day for the San Diego Padres.

In addition, during the past year, up to 10% of the city’s roughly 283,000 water customers have had their bills held, Team 10 uncovered.

City officials say that figure dropped to less than 2% in December 2023.

UNCLEAR WHY BILLS HELD

City officials can’t precisely tell customers why their bills are being held.

They have told customers in recent notices that perhaps a misread or broken water meter, or a leak is the cause.

So, the bill gets held and customers have been told they won’t get one until the city can “investigate further.”

In the meantime, customers won’t have to pay interest on late payments, though payments must be made.

TWO LATE BILLS IN A YEAR

Shawna McClure was among those getting a notice from the city in early January.

The Bay Park resident lives with three other adults, five dogs, two bunnies and a cockatiel.

She said it was the second time in about a year she’s had her bill held.

After finally getting the bills, the most recent one was more than $500. The other one: $1,634.

Shawna McClure.jpg
Shawna McClure says the late water bills created a financial hardship for her.

Her typical bi-monthly bill is less than $200, she said.

“Why do they think they have a right to withhold bills?” McClure said.

She said the large bills, especially the first one, packed a financial punch.

“I put timers on showers. I mean, everybody got a three-minute shower. And, you know, I didn’t want anybody washing laundry,” she said. “Just tightening up… It made my life miserable for a little bit because I was trying to pay a $1,600 water bill.”

ABNORMAL USAGE

Public Utilities Department officials say they hold bills that reflect abnormal water usage or exceptionally high balances.

This is done to allow the agency to “investigate and ensure that we are providing an accurate bill,” according to the department.

Up to 10%, or roughly 28,000 bills, were held during some billing cycles in the past year, according to Arian Collins, a city spokesperson. That figure dropped to just more than 1% in December.

He said holding bills does not affect revenue for the city because bills ultimately are issued and eventually are paid.

Juan Guerreiro, the city’s public utilities director, said he understands the frustrations. But, he added, positive changes have occurred.

“We have continued to make improvements in processes and I’m happy to report, thanks to a lot of the changes we made since last December, over 98% of our bills have been sent on time,” he said. “That is a major step and that does meet the industry standard.”

Juan Guerreiro
San Diego Public Utilities Director Juan Guerreiro says the city has made improvements in dealing with water bill problems.

Guerreiro said it will take some added time to work through the backlog of held bills, but the agency wants to make sure they are correct.

“We are fully focused and committed to get that number down over time. The challenge with this backlog and the amount of time that it takes is it’s often a complex process,” he said. “We really appreciate everyone’s patience while we work through this.”

He added that customers can pay off their balances over time with no penalty or interest charged.

‘POORLY RUN CITY’

Gunning, co-owner of Management Solutions, said a city like San Diego should have fixed its water billing problems years ago.

She said 10 properties she manages also have billing issues, and the worst case involves an 11-unit complex near downtown that received the $9,000-plus bill.

La Buena Vista building
This property managed by Robin Gunning received a late water bill totaling $9,183.

Gunning said she could have solved problems with her landlords and tenants a lot sooner if she could have reached someone at the Public Utilities Department.

She notes it has taken at least two hours to talk with a live person, and she keeps a spreadsheet to show how many times she has to call the water department.

But Gunning said even when she reaches a person at the city, she’s been told the department doesn’t have enough meter readers to quickly respond.

Instead, she said the city staff told her to take a picture of the meter and send it to them.

“We are a great place to live, but we have a poorly run city,” she said. “There’s no urgency and there’s no accountability. And I don’t understand how people are paid for those results.”

Haney Hong, the president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, says the Public Utilities Department was a worthy winner of the Golden Fleece Award, which recognizes government organizations that have room for improvement.

"I would say it probably ranks near the bottom [of local government entities]... Other cities and other municipal districts — they don't have the problem with the billing questions and the inability... not sending a bill for seven months... That just strikes me as weird," Hong says. "If someone owes you money — would you wait seven months to send out the bill?"

Watch the video below to hear more from Hong on why the Public Utilities Department needs to improve.

President/CEO of San Diego County Taxpayers Association speaks on Public Utilities Department's struggles