LADWP Hopes to Rebuild Trust With Customers

More customer service representatives is first on the list for DWP's general manager

Amid customer service complaints and an overbilling crisis, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power vowed on Tuesday it would try to regain confidence from its customers.

A slew of new customer service representatives and the hiring of a team of experts were on the list for LADWP General Manager Marcie Edwards, who met with business owners upset with chronic problems in the department.

Among the problems within DWP were the findings of an NBC4 I-Team investigation in February: the overbilling of tens of thousands of LA households for water and power without customers even realizing it.

One operator of three Century City high rise buildings complained that bills were late, inaccurate unintelligible and sometimes non-existent. On more than one occasion, they got the late fee and fine before they got the actual invoice they were supposed to pay.

"The bills are complicated," Renee Watkinson said of the DWP bills for the Century City buildings. "They've added a lot of additional fees and tariffs without explanation, so they're very difficult, to follow the bills and to read them. It's taking us hours, days, to go through a bill and to process it."

Residential customers had similar problems -- an estimated 65,000 LADWP customers were likely overcharged since September 2013.

DWP then set up a website to help customers who think they've been overcharged after the NBC4 I-Team's report.

Edwards announced plans Tuesday to slowly rebuild the department's credibility with customers, both residential and business. Her first steps are to hire more customer service operators to cut down on wait times for service, and bring in experts to deal with the flawed computer system that has resulted in rampant billing errors.

"Being able to compare and contrast with other utilities, in us cutting costs, improving productivity, improving the customer experience, improving transparency -- these are all things that should be done," Edwards said.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Tuesday announced that there will be no pay raises for at least the next three years.

"We are going to restore pride in this utility," Garcetti said.

Though Edwards expressed concerns over a constant "upward pressure" to hike customers' rates, she said she will not entertain the thought until confidence and credibility is restored.

One of the reasons a rate hike is being pushed as an option is the need for a revamping of LA's infrastructure.

"Infrastructure across the city is getting older," DWP Spokesman Joe Ramallo said of the city's gushing geysers and ruptured water mains. "Our pipes, our poles, our cables, our wires are aging."

But hiking customers' rates to pay for infrastructure repair isn't an immediate answer.

"We are not at the point yet where we feel we have the numbers that we can go out with and discuss publicly," Ramallo said.

The agency is studying how much a full infrastructure upgrade would cost, but it's too early to say how much money would come out of customers' pockets considering other priorities such as renewable energy systems and new government regulations.

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