Residents line up for meeting with water officials to discuss overcharges

SAN DIEGO -- The city utilities department hosted a workshop Thursday to help out water customers who believe they were overcharged due to meter misreading.

Tempers quickly flared and emotions ran as residents demanded answers from City Councilmember Chris Cate and personnel from the Public Utilities Department.

Last week, the city admitted that 343 customers were overcharged as much as $420 due to misreading, potentially answering questions that had left residents dumbfounded and going to local media outlets in search of answers.

Residents lined up  outside the Mira Mesa Senior Center, 8460 Mira Mesa Blvd., before the meeting started at 5:30 p.m. Some brought recent water bills to ask officials to look for mistakes and maybe reverse large increases.

"I need to complain about my bill, my bill is $524, we've been living in the same house for 13 years and our bill more than doubled," said Mira Mesa resident Gemma Atengco.

Others shared similar complaints.

"In December we were gone for 10 whole days on vacation and my husband was gone for 20 traveling, if anything it should've been less with less billing days, it's baffling to us," said Emma Jones who came to the meeting from her University City home.

Councilmember Chris Cate promised the city is going to do a better job.

"We want to make sure every meter gets read within 45 days, we're starting from zero making sure we're correcting the situation moving forward' said Cate.

The department found after an internal review there was indeed a problem related to meter reading in Carmel Valley, Mira Mesa, Rancho Bernardo and Rancho Penasquitos. Of 2,041 meters in that area, 323 were misread, which resulted in overcharges ranging from $186 to $420, city staff said at the City Council Environment Committee meeting Wednesday. They will eventually be receiving refunds.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer last week directed the department to investigate every complaint of high water bills. The city auditor will also be completing a review of the department's billing practices by June.

The city is implementing several measures to help ensure accuracy of water bills: requiring PUD supervisors to sign off on daily reports from meter readers, adding security protocols to ensure only certain staff can input data, improving automated alerts that flag spikes in water usage, adding a second spot check review of meter reads to ensure accuracy and adding an informational insert in water bills about how customers can read their own meters, according to the mayor's office.

Other reasons why customers' bills could have increased are a 6.9 percent rate jump that took effect on Aug. 1, a one-time billing schedule change that extended the normal 60-day billing period to up to 70 days late last year, warmer months that could contribute to increased usage, and leaks in homes and irrigation systems, according to the mayor's office.