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As city workers spread asphalt over a bumpy patch of road in Point Loma in March, a television news camera focused on City Councilman Kevin Faulconer, who was watching the crew nearby.
“If there’s a pothole that’s been bugging you, call the city’s pothole line number,” Faulconer told the camera. “We’ll send a crew out in about four to five days and get it fixed.”
That night, Faulconer’s promise appeared on 10News. He assured San Diegans their potholes would be addressed within days. They just needed to call the city.
But it was a promise San Diego often doesn’t keep.
Over the past four years, repair crews have taken an average of five weeks — not days — to address the city’s growing number of pothole complaints. Last year, the average jumped to seven weeks, a Voice of San Diego investigation found.
And that’s only when crews accurately documented their response.
VOSD found that mistakes are pervasive in the city’s system for tracking pothole complaints, making response times impossible to verify in more than one-third of cases. Among complaints free of errors, response times have worsened more dramatically in some parts of the city than others.
Beginning in 2010, crews responded substantially slower to complaints from northern neighborhoods like La Jolla, Clairemont and Rancho Bernardo. It’s unclear why.
Northern residents aren’t alone. In Faulconer’s district, which stretches from downtown to Pacific Beach, repair crews took an average of 16 days to address complaints in 2008. Last year, it took nearly twice as long. Crews met Faulconer’s promise — a response within five days — in fewer than half the cases.
It wasn’t the first time a San Diego official has exaggerated the city’s responsiveness to pothole complaints. In 2009, streets officials claimed they were fixing all potholes within three days. A VOSD analysis found it actually took 16 days to even send a crew to assess them.
Today, complaints wait even longer. As San Diego’s roads continue to deteriorate, so has the pace of the city’s responsiveness to residents who care enough to pinpoint where the city can fix them.
Potholes in the Pothole Tracking System
When the city gets a pothole complaint, it documents the date and reported location. Then a crew goes to the street, assesses its condition and decides whether it needs repairs. The crew records the date of its first inspection and the date it resolves the complaint.
But in one out of every three cases, city crews have entered errors. Mistakes in the city’s tracking system have been widespread for years. More than 12,000 complaints were documented with mistakes in the last four years, making it impossible to verify just how quickly the city responded. Hundreds of dates were recorded with incorrect years (like 1900 or 2201) or as being completed before the city had even been notified.
Hasan Yousef, the city official who oversees pothole repairs, said the city knows the mistakes are common and has been working with crews to correct them. Temporary workers, who don’t have as much experience working with the city’s tracking system, are responsible for most errors, he said.
Yousef said employees who enter data into the system are thoroughly trained. But the city will take new steps to oversee its employees’ performance following our analysis, he said. It plans to randomly sample its data more often to assess its quality and correct errors when they are found.
“Though we would prefer to have a full time well-trained permanent work force adequate to handle the largest possible volume of data entry, that is not feasible,” Yousef wrote in an email. “We will continue to rely on a fluctuating volume of temporary staff assigned to this task with the understanding that their work will require additional review.”
More Complaints, Slower Responses
San Diego’s roads are getting worse each year. And as they bounce over increasingly rutted streets, more people are paying attention. The city has funneled millions toward additional repairs. And it has urged the public to help them find potholes.
City Council members have even organized pothole-fixing community events. They’ve walked neighborhood streets, pinpointed cracks and in some cases filled them. They’ve welcomed news reporters and cameras documenting repair crews in action.
At the same time, the city’s response to pothole complaints has dramatically slowed. Crews took an average of 19 days in 2008 and 52 days last year. (These figures exclude complaints containing errors.)
To be clear, our analysis only examined the city’s response to pothole complaints. It did not include thousands of potholes instantaneously filled by crews that proactively spot and fix them. We instead wanted to know how responsive the city is to residents.
Response times could be rising because the city is getting thousands more complaints, Yousef said. When the city responded to complaints in an average of 19 days in 2008, they logged about 3,000 fewer cases than last year.
Yousef said crews haven’t been able to keep up with rising demand. Staffing levels have not changed substantially. In some cases, Yousef said, employee injuries, broken equipment and job vacancies have pushed back response times.
“When a truck is down, the area serviced by that truck will be impacted,” Yousef wrote in an email. “When an employee is not available to operate the truck, the area will be impacted.”
Yousef attributed part of the rise in complaints to the public’s increased awareness. A severe wave of winter storms in 2010, increased funding for road repairs and greater media coverage of worsening road conditions may have all spurred residents to report potholes.
Complaints are up in most areas of the city, but crews reported the most dramatic rise last year in Councilman Carl DeMaio’s district, which includes Mira Mesa, Rancho Bernardo and San Pasqual. Complaints from the area doubled after DeMaio launched a smartphone app aimed at collecting more pothole complaints.
Some Residents Wait Longer Than Others
Though pothole complaints have risen across the city, those from San Diego’s northern neighborhoods have been waiting weeks longer than others to be addressed.
Last year, crews took nearly 90 days to resolve the average complaint in the City Council districts represented by Sherri Lightner, Lorie Zapf and DeMaio. In the rest of the city, the average was 25 days.
The reason for the disparity is unclear. We asked city officials and every council office what might possibly explain the trend. None provided answers, but several council members said they were alarmed and wanted more information.
“There’s absolutely no reason that response times should differ,” Councilman David Alvarez said. “That’s what I believe about services in general.”
Yousef said our finding is “neither complete nor accurate” since the analysis excluded the one-third of complaints that contained errors.
“Complaints are treated equally regardless of source or area or origin,” he wrote in an email.
But the city’s statistics indicate otherwise. Even if the VOSD analysis had included the complaints with errors and assumed they were addressed on the same day they were received, the disparity would still exist.
Yousef said crews currently track response times based on citywide data, and have not examined them among council districts. Bill Harris, a spokesman for the city’s streets department, said the city still doesn’t plan to examine the comparison following our findings.
“We don’t see a disparity in the delivery of services. Do some districts generate more complaints and more services? Absolutely,” Harris said. “In order to have equal response times in every district, you’d have to have the same conditions in every district. That quite frankly is never going to occur.”
Several council members, including Lightner, DeMaio and Zapf, called the disparity troubling and demanded further analysis by streets officials. Zapf said the city should correct errors and then examine response times by council districts.
“If the final picture still shows a significant disparity in response times between council districts, I will be following up with city staff and figuring out why,” Zapf said in a statement.
Both Lightner and DeMaio are up for election this fall and have made potholes major issues in their campaigns. Lightner has held week-long “pothole roundups” in her district where she joins streets crews to identify craters in the roads. She has said streets repairs are her most common request from her constituents. DeMaio, running for mayor, recently pushed a ballot initiative aimed at guiding more money toward repairs.
“The amount of errors and lagging response times when it comes to pothole repairs in San Diego is completely unacceptable,” DeMaio wrote in an email. “Not only is there a road repair funding problem in the City of San Diego, there is a serious road repair management problem. These findings make that painfully clear.”
Council President Tony Young also said city staff should examine response times among council districts following our investigation. He questioned the accuracy of our findings, saying pothole fixes requested by him and his office workers are normally repaired within days.
“Three months is unacceptable if that is the case,” Young said.
In a written statement, Faulconer said the city should be able to fix potholes faster. He promised to push the City Auditor to review the data and recommend ways to improve response times.
And of his March promise that pothole complaints are addressed within five days?
Faulconer declined comment.
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