public utilities

by Kelly Thornton | inewsource

Since San Diego launched a new $24 million water and sewer billing system in July, thousands of ratepayers have flooded the city with complaints that their service has been cut off, they’ve been overcharged, or they can’t pay their bills online.

The debacle has forced the public utilities department to assign about 20 employees to work nights and weekends for several months just to handle the calls and emails from irate customers. The complaints and workers’ overtime continue.

“Whoever was in charge of that ought to be beaten severely about the head and shoulders,” said Marjorie Forbes of Mission Hills, who had been using auto pay for water bills for her home and an apartment building in Pacific Beach without a hitch until the new system came online. Now she’s back to paper bills for her residential account because she can’t seem to reestablish her electronic payment.

“It’s just another example of a really stupid government thing,” Forbes said. “They had a system that worked just great and had to change it.”

The problems in public utilities are the latest attributed to the city’s troubled computer system upgrade that dates back to 2007. The mess is the first application to directly impact customers.

City officials downplayed the recent problems, saying it takes time to get used to a new system.

“The system itself does work really well,” said Public Utilities Department spokesman Kurt Kidman. “It’s the interaction with our customers we don’t have at the level we want to have it at.”

The city will continue to pay time-and-a-half to employees working overtime “until we get our customers happy,” he said. “We’re making strides but we’re not where we want to be.”

Kidman said his bosses, including department Director Roger Bailey, declined to comment.

One of the disgruntled water customers was none other than City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who was unable to move service to a new address. “Oh don’t get me started. I’m kind of mad about it.”

There are scores of others who are more than “kind of mad.” They are mostly people who had set up automatic payments and passwords that disconnected when the new system launched, or people who could no longer pay their bill online. Trying to get auto pay reinstated, or make an online payment, before the water was shut off was a nightmare of desperate, unanswered emails and long sessions on hold, never reaching a live person.

Here’s a sampling of the emails inewsource, a journalism nonprofit based at San Diego State University, obtained after the launch: “I am stuck in an endless loop and I will not be able to access and pay my water/sewer bill before it is due,” one customer wrote.

Another wrote: “I have enrolled in the system but it still won’t process my payments. I am very frustrated by this as I have tried several times to enroll and the city has now charged fees and required a security deposit. Please send paper bills going forward.”

And another frustrated ratepayer wrote: “I have tried to reach your company by your website and failed – increased rage each time. I have tried to reach your company by phone several times and have given up as a lost cause.”

Point Loma resident Ellen McCannon encountered a city employee just after he’d shut off her water on a Friday afternoon in September. She never received a shut-off notice. She tried to pay her bill online and was unable to do so and was frantic to contact the city to get the water back on.

After a self-described meltdown and hours trying to reach a live person, she managed to get someone back out to her house at about 6 p.m. He told her that his colleagues were working overtime that night because of the high demand to get water turned back on.

“He said the whole billing cycle’s messed up and that we employees have actually told our management we really feel we should just be setting notices on doors,” McCannon said, quoting the water department worker who shut off and reinstated her water service on Sept. 30. “If people can’t be getting into the system to pay their bill, we shouldn’t be shutting them off.”

Water department employees said customers reported water was shut off in a few different scenarios: They thought they’d paid online, but realized too late it hadn’t gone through; they received no bill or notice; or they knew they hadn’t received a bill and tried without success to reach the city.

As of Tuesday Oct. 18, almost four months after the new system went live, a inewsource call to the utilities department was disconnected after this greeting: “We are currently experiencing a very high call volume and delayed response time. We are not able to handle your call at this time.”

inewsource is waiting for the city to answer a formal request for the number of complaints from its 260,000 customers, but Kidman said providing that information may be delayed because “our customers come first.”

Kidman said he does not believe the call volume to the department has increased. What’s increased is the time it takes customer service representatives to solve the problems, he said. And that has created a backlog.

Kidman said no employees were taken off their jobs to handle complaints; however, one employee, who has first-hand knowledge, said workers were not doing their regular jobs while answering customers’ calls and emails.

Kidman also said the city has been tracking the time employees spent working on this problem since it started in July, but the employee said the city only started doing so through codes issued last week for timecards. The employee asked not to be quoted by name out of fear of being fired.

The computer software upgrade that has been blamed for a variety of problems replaced an antiquated fragmented mainframe system. The project, begun in 2007, wound up $16 million over budget and more than a year behind schedule. The city fired the contractor, Axon Solutions Inc., and replaced it with the software’s manufacturer, SAP, one of the world’s largest business software companies.

Outside consultants, brought in when the city was the target of numerous investigations, indictments, overdue audits and plummeting credit ratings, suggested an integrated computer system would be one way of restoring the city’s financial credibility and transparency.

When the system is complete possibly in the next several years, city residents will be able to log in to their own account and pay everything from water bills to business license fees to parking fines at once. It’s what has been referred to as “One Call to City Hall.”

The final project cost was just under $52 million – $16 million over the original projected cost of $36.6 million. The public utilities billing system was an additional $24 million.

As the problems with the utility billing system began to surface in July, city officials were still hustling to fix a software problem they blamed for an eight-month delay in issuing the city’s annual 2010 financial statements and audit, documents that signal Wall Street that city finances are in order. The delay meant the city waited to refinance bonds that would have saved millions of dollars in interest.

Kidman said the first week the billing system produced 5,917 bills that incorrectly calculated sewer bills, mostly overcharging customers. The department corrected the programming glitch, sent out new bills and the problem has been solved, Kidman said.

He noted that the department forewarned customers in emails and letters about the transition to the new system. When asked whether he blamed customers, he said: “I’m sure there are some computer savvy people who have gotten in there and had problems. I’m not going to blame the customer here.”

According to city documents dated Oct. 14, the issues are not simply user error. The memos, called “Customer Information Hot Sheets,” which were created to help customer service representatives troubleshoot, indicate the system was unilaterally changing passwords and security questions.

One memo says “many but not all users” have reported their passwords are not working. “We are currently working to confirm, identify and resolve this issue but no fix has been identified at this time. We do not have an estimated date when this issue will be resolved.”

At a public board meeting July 25 of the San Diego Data Processing Corp., the city agency that provides IT services, there was no mention of the problems that have turned into a public relations fiasco.

Rather, officials praised program managers because the water billing system was two months ahead of schedule.

The meeting minutes said the system was implemented June 30 and had “an accuracy percentage of 99.2 percent” in processing 98,171 payments totaling $36.2 million. Program Manager Jane Arnold noted that the project “was a huge accomplishment and team effort.”

This story was featured on KPBS radio and The San Diego Union-Tribune this morning. It can be read and heard by visiting For the latest, watch KPBS’ Evening Edition tonight at 6:30 p.m. Channels 11 and 711 and DTV 15-1.

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