Maintenance workers for San Diego’s Public Utilities Department worked less than a half day of work but were paid for a full eight hours. The problem may have occurred for more than a year.
That discovery was made by San Diego’s City Auditor and will be detailed in a report, set to be released Friday.
Staff for the Water Meter Box Repair and Replace Division worked an average of 3.6-hours a day during a full eight-hour shift, according to city’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer Johnnie Perkins.
“I’m appalled,” Perkins said during a Thursday news conference.
The announcement comes a day after NBC 7 Responds reported a backlog of 21,605 water meter boxes in San Diego that are in need of replacement or repair.
“We knew our recently initiated review of the water division’s operations would uncover more issues of concern and we’re committed to addressing them,” said Katie Keach, the city’s Director of Communications.
“We need to change the culture of the Public Utilities Department,” said Perkins. “There seems to be a culture that not working a full day or not putting in the assignments, is acceptable.”
Since January, NBC 7 Responds has found customers charged inaccurate water bills, problems with the way the city tested water meters and potential problems with the city's more than $60-million AMI smart meter program.
To see a timeline of NBC 7 Responds’ investigation into the Public Utilities Department, look below or click here.
All of these reasons could be behind a sea change within the water department, including changes with upper management.
Effective Thursday, Public Utilities Department Director Vic Bianes said he was retiring from his post. Matt Vespi, the city’s Department of Finance Assistant Director, will take over as interim director while the city conducts a nationwide search for Bianes’ replacement.
Bianes’ retirement comes months after another department head, Deputy Director Michael Vogl announced his retirement.
During most of Bianes’ time as director, which began in November 2017, the Public Utilities Department has faced sharp criticism.
Shortly after taking over the department, emails show Bianes worked to limit oversight. NBC 7 Responds uncovered internal emails where Bianes told his staff to be “vague” about deadlines surrounding the department’s more than $60-million dollar effort to transition to smart water meters.
“No need to allow [the Independent Rates and Oversight Committee] to focus on giving us direction on how to improve,” Bianes said.
To read those internal emails, click here.
When water customers started to raise concerns of unusually high water bills last July, the department said the bills were accurate and blamed the charges on a list of reasons from water leaks to a newly implemented rate increase. By February, hundreds of water customers came forward with inaccurate bills leading city councilmembers to call for multiple audits into the department.
By July, a city audit found more than 11,000 customer bills were corrected in 2017, 2,750 of those were corrected after customers had already received the bills. The Auditor found meter reader employees had learned ways to hide mistakes made out in the field.
In addition to employee work hour discrepancies, Perkins also noted the Water Meter Box Repair and Replace Division had inefficient routing and scheduling.
“We’re not taking this lightly,” added Perkins. “We’re very frustrated.”