Water meter
Old-style water meter. Image via YouTube.com

The audit of the city utilities department’s water billing procedures is being fast-tracked and expanded, Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced Thursday, as officials seek more answers about how 343 residents were overcharged by as much as $420 due to one employee’s misreading of water meters.

Residents began raising questions about their bills with city officials at the start of the year and, disappointed with the response, many went to local media in an effort to get more thorough answers. Some were told by the Department of Public Utilities that there was nothing erroneous about their bills.

But earlier this month the department discovered that there was indeed major problems with some customers’ bills — some saw their charges skyrocket by as much as 400 percent due to meter misreading, Councilman Chris Cate said.

This resulted in what Councilwoman Lorie Zapf referred to as “mounting questions about the management of bills and mistreatment of residents.”

“Over the last month too many of our customers have been inconvenienced,” Faulconer said. “That’s why I have asked our city’s independent Auditor Eduardo Luna to make an audit of the city’s Public Utilities Department his top priority.”

Luna said the review will be finished by June at the latest, possibly earlier.

Faulconer also directed the utilities department to conduct its own internal “top-down” review and has empowered department Director Vic Bianes to make changes to procedures as he sees fit.

What’s more, each customer who comes to the department with a billing concern will have their bills reviewed, he said.

City officials say they believe the billing issues are isolated to the 343 meters in Carmel Valley, Mira Mesa, Rancho Bernardo and Rancho Penasquitos — nearly 16 percent of all meters in that area. But some people outside those neighborhoods told local media they believe they too have been overcharged.

Other reasons why customers’ bills could have increased are a 6.9 percent rate jump that took effect on Aug. 1, a one-time billing schedule change that extended the normal 60-day billing period to up to 70 days late last year, warmer months that could contribute to increased usage, and leaks in homes and irrigation systems, according to the mayor’s office.

“I am giving very clear directions … that each customer who calls with a billing concern must be heard,” Faulconer said.

Residents who think they may have been overcharged can come to the Mira Mesa Senior Center, 8460 Mira Mesa Blvd., between 5:30 and 7 p.m. Thursday for a workshop hosted by Cate. They should bring their two most recent water bills.

They can also call (619) 515-3500 or email customercare@sandiego.gov.

Another meeting being organized by community residents will be held Feb. 21 at 5:30 p.m. at La Jolla Riford Library, 7555 Draper Ave.

The audit will also explore the role that smart meters may have played in the overcharging. The electronic meters “remove the human element” of meter reading and are meant to be more efficient. The city plans to install the meters in all homes by 2020.

The employee who misread the 343 meters is no longer employed by the city, Faulconer said.

— City News Service

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.