New issues continue to surface from inside San Diego’s Water Department. The latest: a backlog of broken water meter boxes citywide.
NBC 7 Responds has learned that the water department needs to repair or replace 21,605 boxes holding water meters across the city. The city confirmed this number to NBC 7 Responds days before the City Auditor is expected to release its own audit looking into the backlog.
“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, San Diego’s Director of Communications.
Keach said there were several reasons for the backlog, including “a lack of oversight and accountability, process inefficiencies, limited staff resources,” as well as a high vacancy employment rate in the department.
The lack of oversight and accountability has been a running theme throughout the recent controversies coming from the water division.
Managers in San Diego’s Public Utilities Department have been criticized for their handling of thousands of inaccurate water bills sent out to customers over the past year. Most recently, the mayor’s office blamed department leadership for failing to supervise certain water meter readers, whether that was due to frequent misreads or for allowing them to bypass alerts when mistakes were made in the field. And two weeks ago, Deputy Chief Operating Officer Johnnie Perkins said a software problem led to the department failing to send bills to more than 2,500 water customers. One customer told NBC 7 Responds she had been calling the department’s customer service line for months about the lack of water bills but said her problem wasn’t addressed.
“From meter reading oversight, to customer service, to communications, to billing, changes must be made in how this department operates," said Mayor Kevin Faulconer during a July 26 news conference.
Broken water meter boxes have already cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.
NBC 7 Responds discovered that the city paid $107,500 to a Normal Heights woman that tripped and fell into the water meter box on the sidewalk outside of her home.
According to court findings, Margarita Estrada was walking to her car which was parked outside of her home on 35th Street in Normal Heights in September 2014. Three months prior, staff with the Public Utilities Department had been at the home to repair Estrada’s meter.
The crews had noticed the meter box and lid were broken and placed barricades around the perimeter but a month later another crew removed the barricade, exposing the broken box. Estrada tripped while walking to her car and fell through the box, crushing her leg and injuring her neck during the fall, according to the civil lawsuit.
On September 10, 2015, Estrada sued the city and on May 2, 2018, the city settled with Estrada.
A spokesperson for the city did not respond to questions about the lawsuit.
“The independent City Auditor has been reviewing the issue of water meter boxes, and the Public Utilities Department looks forward to implementing any recommendations for improvement,” Keach said. “The ongoing overall review of the division's management, processes and overall operations will result in service improvements for our customers.”