“Flood of Distrust: An NBC 7 Responds Special Report” airs Saturday, October 27 at 6:30 p.m. on NBC 7.
Complaints about San Diego’s water department continue to surface. During the past year, the San Diego Public Utilities Department has looked to wash off the stains from controversies involving high water bills, errant water meter reader employees, repair backlogs, and complaints about a lackluster customer service department.
Customers who questioned their water bill say water department employees were quick to place blame on them and reluctant to investigate complaints. Such issues have led to a growing surge of distrust among ratepayers in San Diego.
Rancho Bernardo resident Maria Villegas says her trust has faded. She says that water department workers were more concerned with placing blame than finding problems.
Villegas says she was shocked when she opened her water bill in April of last year. It spiked from an average bi-monthly amount of $240 to a whopping $619.43.
“I immediately called and they tried to say to me that it was just the way it is, that I must have a leak,” Maria told NBC 7 Responds.
But Villegas said she didn’t have a leak. Her landlord had hired a plumber to check for leaks. Maria’s husband also shut off all water inside the house and then looked at the water meter to see if it was registering any water usage. The meter’s dial didn’t spin, meaning no water was flowing through the meter.
Maria waited to see if the following bill went back to normal.
Then the following month’s bill arrived in the mail. Villegas was floored to see the bill had increased to $681.63. She called the water department again and was told the same.
“They tried to make me think it was just me,” said Maria.
After a series of calls, Maria’s bill in October 2017 arrived in the mail. She opened it to find it had increased by $100 to $787. Again Maria says she was told there must be a leak in her house.
“Even if we had a leak, we'd have to be leaking more water than we're using, does that make any sense?"
Maria says the following bills went down slightly but were still more than double the average amount she and her husband paid.
Meanwhile she continued to call the water department. And their response remained the same.
“The biggest part is the whole thing of them letting us think that somehow it was all our fault.”
She says her suspicions were later confirmed when the city changed out her water meter in March of this year. Their first bill with the new meter suddenly returned to pre-spike levels of $250 a month.
The water department did later decide to reimburse Maria a total of $439 but she says it was not enough.
Regarding Maria’s bill, city spokesperson Jerry McCormick told NBC 7 Responds, “City staff reviewed consumption data for this property and removed the meter for testing, replacing it with a new meter. While the staff was unable to identify abnormalities that would contribute to a miscalculation in the usage data, a one-time adjustment was applied to the customer’s account, consistent with the Public Utilities Department’s commitment to customer service.”
“Any customer with questions or concerns about their water usage or bills are encouraged to call us and give us an opportunity to assist,” McCormick’s statement read.
Customer service issues are at the center of a city auditor investigation. The Auditor’s report is due to be released in the coming months.
Maria is not alone. In fact, her story is similar to dozens of people who have called NBC 7 Responds during the course of the team’s 14-month investigation into the city’s water department.
From billing complaints to millions of dollars worth of questionable spending made by the water department, NBC 7 Responds wanted to know how the city is working to gain back customer trust.
NBC 7 Responds dives into the department, detailing problems uncovered this past year.