Santa Monica, CA -- The LADWP’s pledge to give customers a bill of rights is a step forward, but the LADWP remains in need of a major bureaucratic overhaul, Consumer Watchdog said today.
“These are common sense reforms that should be standard business practice and shouldn’t need a board of commissioners’ vote,” said Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court. “This is like putting a customer bill of rights on the wall of a Russian Gulag. What’s needed is to tear down the walls and create an independent voice for ratepayer problems rather than entrusting a failed bureaucracy to fix itself. The definition of insanity is trusting the same failed bureaucrats to try to fix their own problems without new accountability. The current ratepayer advocate, a former Enron employee, should be fired as well if ratepayers are to have a voice at DWP when his contract is up this year.”
The LADWP overbilled customers $67.5 million when a new billing software system malfunctioned in 2013 after management was warned the system was not ready. While ratepayers owed a refund still haven’t seen one, the City has already paid out millions of dollars to utility consultants and lawyers. Meanwhile, ratepayers are often terminated for nonpayment of bills they don’t believe they owe or that are wildly inflated on the basis of “estimates.”
“The big missing pieces from this bill of rights are the right to redress without termination when a bill is wrong, independent third party review of billing problems outside of the DWP bureaucracy, and a real ratepayer advocate independent of the DWP to report what's really going on,” said Court. “Relying on the same DWP bureaucracy to be more responsive is crazy because these bureaucrats have proven to be inept at following the current rules. Now it looks like DWP is just creating new rules to follow without accountability to an outside authority for audits and review.”
The LADWP’s bill of rights does not address how the LADWP will handle overbilling problems and customer termination of service. Consumer Watchdog says this is the key issue, as well as why computer billing errors occur in the first place.
“It’s a no brainer that people should be sent their bills within a few days of a meter read, or that a bill should be automatically reviewed if it’s suddenly for usage three times higher than average,” said consumer advocate Liza Tucker. “The question remains why customers are being terminated for nonpayment of bills that they honestly believe, and that evidence shows, they can’t possibly owe. Right now, ratepayers are still left holding the bag on hundreds or thousands of dollars they don’t owe—and paying those bills to avoid cutoff.”
Tucker said that the LADWP has dragged its feet for a year in providing documentation under the Public Records Act on customer terminations for nonpayment of bills and three months for records documenting problems with its billing system. Consumer Watchdog has waited four months for detailed billing records pertaining to lawyers and consultants paid millions of dollars to negotiate a class action settlement and review the methodology LADWP is using to calculate refunds.
“The LADWP has put off responses to requests for most of 2016, and claimed many of the documents are privileged,” said Tucker. “We should start with real accountability at the LADWP via transparency about what ratepayers are bankrolling.”
Real reform, Consumer Watchdog said, should include an immediate overhaul of Public Record Act response times and release of records at DWP.
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