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

Over the past year, San Diego’s water department refunded over $650,000 to hundreds of customers who received unjustifiably high water bills.

The payouts are another sign of how water customers were affected by bad bills from the city. Over 1,100 customers received refunds this year, meaning the city overcharged the average customer by more than $500.

The number and cost of refunds has dramatically risen in recent years, according to department records analyzed by Voice of San Diego and NBC 7 Responds as part of an ongoing investigation into the water department’s billing practices.

In 2017, the city only issued about $100,000 in refunds to customers with exceptionally high bills. In each of the two years before that, the city issued less than $30,000 in refunds a year for that reason.

The city also issues refunds for other reasons. All told, it’s refunded $8.3 million to customers since 2015.

The rising paybacks related to inexplicably high bills help quantify the scale of the department’s recent sloppiness, which several recent audits have acknowledged. Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s administration is now trying to fix the problems by partly cleaning house and keeping a closer eye on the department.

The new wave of problems comes as the city is spending tens of millions of dollars to upgrade its water meter technology. Some of the meters themselves have had glitches, prompting suspicion that new meter technology is part of the problem, but auditors have so far blamed almost all the billing problems on city employees.

The biggest payback was a $4.7 million refund issued to the Navy in October 2017. That figure is being counted separately from the other refunds for high bills, because the Navy is unlike most other customers.

“This was a billing adjustment made to correct overcharges for the Navy facilities in Point Loma,” city spokeswoman Nicole Darling said in an email. “Due to the complexity of the metering system in that location (the system has multiple meters) it was determined that, over a period of several years, the Navy had overpaid for water service.”

The refunds are also a reminder that city officials first tried to wave away customer complaints about higher-than-expected bills. When we first began reporting on billing issues at the beginning of the year, city officials blamed customers and argued some of the spikes were because of holiday guests who came over and used water.

As several audits have shown and the city now admits, those statements didn’t really hold water.

“Probably the biggest part is that whole piece of letting us think that somehow it was our fault,” said Rancho Bernardo homeowner Maria Villegas, reflecting on the months that she said city customer service representatives told her she was at fault.

Villegas is one of many homeowners in the city who raised concerns over high water bills at the start of the year. She says from April 2017 to February 2018, her bills kept rising, but her consumption habits had stayed the same.

After NBC 7 published Villegas’ story, the Public Utilities Department contacted her and, through multiple payments, she was refunded more than $1,800.

In a statement, Darling said, “The Public Utilities Department routinely reviews customer billing information and proactively issues refunds when discrepancies or errors occur. The department’s priority is to ensure that customers only pay for the water they use and not a penny more.”

Now that city officials have acknowledged mistakes, they are even disclosing the problems to would-be investors in a section of the department’s bond offerings titled, “Water Utility Customer Billing Operations, Internal Audits, and Other Related Matters.”

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

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