Mayor, Council perform damage control on DWP billing problems

ELIZABETH HSING-HUEI CHOU, City News Service
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Los Angeles Department of Water and Power  (AP Photo)

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (AP Photo)

LOS ANGELES (CNS) – With thousands of customers still receiving inaccurate utility bills following the rollout of a new billing system, the Department of Water and Power should stop sending out water and power shutoff notices, Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander said today.

Since a $59 million overhaul of its billing system in September, DWP has experienced software glitches and has had to estimate some customers’ bill amounts.

Customers who have called customer service to dispute what they see as inaccurate fees for their water and electricity use have also experienced unusually long wait times, sometimes up to 50 minutes.

A council motion submitted by Englander would ask DWP to stop issuing disconnection notices while utility officials work to smooth out billing system problems. The motion will be considered at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

“The fear of disconnection from vital utilities, particularly during the holiday season, is unfair to those who are essentially unable to resolve these problems due to inadequacies within the DWP’s new billing and customer service system,” Englander said.

The councilman noted he is still getting “an unprecedented level” of complaints from “ratepayers who are unable to resolve billing conflicts or inaccuracies.”

These problems prompted DWP employee union chief today to lash out at Mayor Eric Garcetti and top DWP officials over the troubled rollout of the billing system.

Brian D’Arcy, who heads the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18, called the billing system overhaul an “epic failure” that led to a “hostile environment” for DWP employees.

The mayor, Water and Power Commission President Mel Levine and DWP General Manager Ron Nichols “owe thousands of DWP customers an apology and an explanation about what they are doing to fix this over billing issue,” D’Arcy said.

Mayoral spokesman Jeff Millman dismissed D’Arcy’s statements as politically motivated.

“Mayor Garcetti was elected to fix the problems at DWP,” he said. “The voters rejected the union’s control of DWP and the union should stop the political games because the campaign is over.”

Millman said Garcetti has ordered DWP to start using the “virtual hold” system discussed by council members earlier this week.

On Wednesday, DWP officials told council members at the Energy and Environment Committee they are working to resolve the problems in the billing system.

DWP officials also promised to look into implementing a “virtual hold” feature that lets customers leave their information with the customer service line, hang up, and wait for a call back when a representative becomes available.
DWP officials expect this callback system — which will allow customers to avoid getting put on hold for a long period of time — to “go live by early next week,” Millman said.

D’Arcy has been under pressure to cough up financial data about two nonprofits that spent $40 million, ostensibly used for employee training and safety programs, but has so far refused to produce them.

After members of the nonprofits, the Joint Safety Institute and the Joint Training Institute, failed to complete an internal audit this week, the Water and Power Commission called on City Controller Ron Galperin to go ahead with his own audit.

Soon after assuming office, Garcetti sparred with D’Arcy over a pending labor contract that included a three-year postponement of an Oct. 1 pay raise to 2016. Garcetti said the proposal did not do enough, and eventually D’Arcy and the union agreed to also lower starting salaries for 34 employees, change pension tiers for new workers and make other revisions.

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