Instead of digging out and replacing water meter boxes, water department crews in San Diego were digging themselves deeper and deeper into a major work backlog.
According to a newly released report from San Diego’s City Auditor, inefficiencies, lackluster planning, and a lack of enforcement contributed to the backlog of an estimated 25,000 water meter boxes and lids from getting replaced citywide.
The independent audit report found workers whose sole task was to replace water boxes or cracked lids spent less than half of the day out in the field. The rest of the time, workers socialized in the yard or were unaccounted for. While department policy allowed crews 30-minutes of prep-time before leaving the yard in the morning, crews were known to take more than six-times longer.
“The supervisor indicated allowing employees to socialize in the morning before leaving the yard as a way of promoting camaraderie and a sense of team within the group,” reads the August 31 audit report. “While this is reasonable to an extent, the fact that crews do not typically start their first job until after 9:30 a.m.—three hours after the start of their workday—indicates widespread abuse and a lack of accountability...”
But crews were not very productive even after leaving the yard.
According to the report, crews that reported broken boxes and lids failed to send pictures or include adequate descriptions, resulting in crews having to leave jobs more than 40 percent of the time without picking up a shovel or dropping down a lid.
On an average day, the auditor revealed an eight-person crew should have sufficient time to replace 12 boxes and 20 lids. Water department crews, however, were only replacing 4 boxes and 15 lids per day.
In hopes of addressing the backlog, the department implemented goals encouraging crews to change damages boxes and lids within six months of receiving a report.
That, however, only happened 25-percent of the time. Instead, the report found it took crews 11 months to replace a cracked lid and more than a year-and-a-half to replace a busted water box.
But the incomplete work files and mornings spent socializing are just two of the reasons for the backlog.
The auditor found that the Box and Lid Group was understaffed, that upper management had assigned one-third of the crew to work on the implementation of the city’s $60-million-dollar smart water meter project.
The backlog of broken boxes and lids has put the city in legal jeopardy. NBC 7 Responds first reported on the $107,650 settlement that the city paid to a Normal Heights woman in May 2018. The woman, Margarita Estrada stepped on a broken box and crushed her leg back in September 2014.
But those weren’t the only payouts that the city made.
From 2015 and June 2017 the city paid $392,776 to settle claims made about injuries and damages caused by broken boxes. There are also currently seven unresolved claims totaling an additional $50,000.
Details of the inefficiencies inside the water department have brought on major changes inside the department.
Yesterday, August 30, director of the Public Utilities Department Vic Bianes announced his retirement, less than one year before taking the position. Bianes’ announcement was made just months after deputy director, Michael Vogl, also abruptly retired.
To see a timeline of NBC 7 Responds’ investigation into the Public Utilities Department, look below or click here.
Those changes, according to San Diego’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer Johnnie Perkins were a long time in the works.
“I’m appalled,” said Perkins during an August 30 news conference. “We need to change the culture of the Public Utilities Department. There seems to be a culture that not working a full day or not putting in the assignments, is acceptable.”