Johnnie Perkins
Johnnie Perkins discusses plans to improve the water department. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

When Vic Bianes stepped down last week as head of the city’s troubled water department, he left behind a host of festering problems.

At the top, senior officials, including Bianes, tried to avoid public oversight. Now, Mayor Kevin Faulconer is looking to clean house and make sure those who remain are going to help solve the department’s problems.

In the middle, supervisors failed to hold low-level employees accountable.

As a result, at the very bottom of the organization, some employees have clearly taken advantage of the mess above them to goof off or do sloppy work.

That message is spelled out in a series of recent audits that look at the department’s billing problems and slow response to customer complaints.

In a recent survey by auditors of personnel attitudes across the city, about two-thirds of Public Utilities Department employees said management did not deal effectively with poorly performing workers.

Another audit last week found poor supervision of a group of repair workers. The workers are supposed to report to a work yard at 6:30 a.m. and then head out into the field shortly thereafter.

Instead, supervisors allowed and perhaps even encouraged the workers to hang around and talk. So, the repair crews weren’t out in the field making repairs until after 9:30 a.m., according to the audit. Then, they would head back to the work yard shortly after 1 p.m. As a result, they’d do less than a half day’s work for a full day’s pay – a good gig, if you can get it.

And there’s another problem: The department is probably also understaffed.

Even if the repair workers weren’t goofing around, the auditors said there should be at least 20 of them, not eight. These particular workers fix the lids that cover water meters and the boxes that contain them. Last year, there were requests to repair over 11,000 boxes and lids.

Likewise, another recent audit found the employees who read water meters had made numerous errors. At least two of those employees were cited in an audit 15 years ago that found employees were falsifying overtime payments.

This group of employees, known as “meter readers,” also have a daunting task. The city has about 280,000 water meters, meaning that workers have to read hundreds of meters each day. That’s possible – a 2005 review found San Diego city employees read about 458 meters per day, compared with an industry average of 319 per day. Perhaps that fast pace was also contributing to the errors.

Yet, management was clearly not keeping an eye on things. According to the recent audit, management had not come up with uniform ways to measure whether these employees were doing their job well.

There are also conflicting numbers about how many of these employees there even are. In March, water department spokesman Jerry McCormick said there were about 20 employees who read meters; the July audit counted 38, including two supervisors.

The city is hoping to reduce the need for meter readers by replacing all the city’s 280,000 meters with “smart meters” that automatically and in real time measure water use. So far, the $60 million program to install the smart meters has been slow going, though, and is the subject of yet another audit.

Michael Zucchet, general manager of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, said in an email there “are clearly staffing shortages in many pockets” of the water department, citing the number of unfilled positions.

City Councilman Scott Sherman, who said he asked for an audit of the repair workers over a year ago, also agreed there are staffing problems. He said the city may need to reduce the burdens on existing employees and either hire more staff or contract with a private company to provide workers. He said something has to change the department’s “culture of not getting a whole lot of work done.”

“If it was private company, these people would have been fired a long time ago,” he said.

Faulconer’s administration, though, isn’t ready to hire more workers until it can sort through the department’s layer cake of bad apples.

“Staffing resources are being considered along with operations to ensure both effective service and efficiency for our customers,” city spokeswoman Katie Keach said in an email. “To reach a conclusion on adequate staffing levels, we must be certain our service levels are appropriate and our processes and procedures are as efficient as possible.”

The department has lost a lot of people’s trust, which could be a problem as it seeks to start major work on its multibillion-dollar effort to turn sewage into drinkable water.

Other water agencies across the state have been closely following the program, known as Pure Water, because a setback in San Diego could be a blow to a series of similar projects proposed across the state. This kind of recycling project was once derided as “toilet to tap” but became politically palatable thanks to the recent drought.

City officials emphasize that the auditors have been looking at billing problems, not anything that affects water quality. But if confidence is shaken, that may not matter.

“To me this is basically fundamental when it comes to trust, and you’ve got to be able to do the small things so people trust you on the big things, the big programs,” said the city’s auditor, Eduardo Luna.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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