With more water billing complaints being heard and a city council member calling for an official audit of the Public Utilities Department's billing procedures, NBC 7 Responds is looking into the committee formed years ago that was tasked with oversight of the water department.
“I’m paying $5,000 a year for water, that’s crazy,” Stephen Hanson out of Pacific Beach said about his water bills last year.
NBC 7 Responds has been hearing from dozens of residents across the city since last August who said they opened their mailboxes to find a water bill hundreds of dollars more than what they usually pay. The earliest complaint NBC 7 Responds has reviewed was Beverly Bradley’s, a Pacific Beach resident who saw usage spikes in September 2016 and May 2017.
On Wednesday, Barbara Bry, the San Diego City Councilmember for District 1 announced she has asked City Auditor Eduardo Luna to “conduct a comprehensive audit of the PUD’s data acquisitions and billing procedures.”
“It is clear this issue is having an impact citywide,” Bry said in a news release. Bry has heard from dozens of residents in La Jolla and said she has been looking into billing complaints for months.
Bry is not alone. On Tuesday, City Councilmember Chris Cate for District 6 sent the Public Utilities Department’s Director Vic Bianes a memo, asking for answers to questions surrounding the high water bills.
“In some instances, we’re seeing a 400% spike in [water] usage which is unheard of,” Cate told NBC 7 Responds.
To read the memo Cate sent, click here.
Cate is familiar with oversight when it comes to the Public Utilities Department. Back in 2007, while working for the San Diego County Taxpayers Association and under the direction of former Mayor Jerry Sanders, Cate helped draft the ordinance that created the Independent Rates Oversight Committee (IROC).
According to a vision statement posted on the city of San Diego’s website, the IROC serves as an advisory body to the Mayor and City Council and oversees service delivery methods, high-quality affordable services and assistance when it comes to maintaining a high-level of public confidence in the city’s utility services.
NBC 7 Responds emailed questions to the Mayor’s office about the IROC but all questions were referred to the Public Utilities Department.
UPDATE: On Wednesday night, city staff released the following statement on behalf of Mayor Kevin Faulconer, “San Diegans need to be able to trust that their bills are correct – and that every cent they pay goes to ensuring we have safe, reliable water. I’ve directed our Public Utilities Department to review every complaint to ensure that nobody is being overcharged and to correct any mistakes immediately.”
Jerry McCormick, a spokesperson for the Public Utilities Department, acknowledged in an email the IROC has the authority to provide operational direction for the water department but has not yet discussed the recent concerns raised by customers.
Cate said the water billing problem has risen to the level where elected officials need to take action to address it but the committee could have a role to play.
“I think that the committee needs to start going back to its roots and look at what it was chartered to do,” Cate said, “Looking more at, are ratepayers getting what they deserve out of the money they send to the city.”
Last week, at a public meeting in Del Cerro, the Public Utility Department’s Deputy Director Mike Vogl told angry water customers his agency has found no widespread issues having to do with water billing but said each complaint is being investigated on a case-by-case basis.
“It seems like it’s a citywide problem,” said Donald Kelly, the director of the utility watchdog Utility Consumers’ Action Network or UCAN.
Kelly said IROC should play a more serious role in overseeing the Public Utilities Department’s actions but in its current form, the 11 member committee might not have the resources it needs to function that way.
“They are all volunteers who serve on the committee, they’re not paid, they have no staff, they have no budget,” Kelly said.
McCormick confirmed the committee has no budget and committee members work on a volunteer basis.
“As a utility watchdog, I’m always concerned of a cozy relationship between the utility and the overseers of that utility,” Kelly said, “The members of IROC and the water department have a very close relationship.”
NBC 7 Responds confirmed with McCormick that no sitting committee members on IROC are Public Utilities Department or city staff. He added IROC members are appointed by the Mayor and City Council.
In 2017, McCormick said IROC members began holding their meetings every other month and since they met in January, the members will not meet again until March 19.