The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing the city of San Diego to make millions of dollars worth of budget cuts. One project that is not facing cuts is the city’s smart water meter program, or advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). The Public Utilities Department, which oversees the program, has instead asked to nearly double the program's budget.
The mayor’s approved 2020 budget already included $67 million for the program, but the mayor’s proposed 2021 budget shows the costs of the program rising to $125 million.
When NBC 7 asked why the city needed an additional $58 million to finish installing smart water meters, a spokesperson said the “increased funds would be used for equipment and to ensure an adequate workforce for all aspects of the implementation including but not limited to installation routing and scheduling, customer education, equipment installation and system integration.”
Since 2012, the city has told ratepayers these new AMI meters will eliminate having to send employees out to walk city streets and manually read existing water meters, which it says can be in hard-to-reach areas. It also says the new meters will help customers by giving them detailed information on their water usage and tips on how to conserve.
For more than a year, NBC 7 Responds investigated cost overruns and issues that affected thousands of city water customers. In 2018 the program was halted after our reporting found examples of mismanaged funds and a lack of training for the team which was supposed to install the new meters. It also found that one of the city’s vendors supplied the department with broken meters.
NBC 7’s reporting followed hundreds of San Diegans reported overcharges on their water bills. This eventually led to the city issuing more than a million dollars in refunds to customers. There was also a shakeup in staff at the Public Utilities Department after our reporting.
NBC 7 asked for a specific breakdown of why the city was requesting an additional $58 million for the program, after it had already spent millions of dollars in the early years of the project, but the city did not provide specific details.
Neither the director of the PUD Shauna Lorance, or anyone from the department would speak on camera about the increased budget. Lorance was appointed in May 2019 as part of a major overhaul of the troubled water department. That overhaul included the departures of five top directors and managers.
Last year, the city’s auditor said the PUD has seen more than $16 million in cost overruns on the smart meter project.
The $58 million increase is part of a proposed budget which will go before the city council for a vote in June. That means there could still be changes to the overall cost, a spokesperson told NBC 7.
Currently, the city projects every home in San Diego will have a working smart meter by 2024. Right now only six percent of San Diegans have a working smart meter.