LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The Los Angeles City Council today ordered a halt on utility shutoff notices until the Department of Water and Power fixes inaccurate and late billing problems in its $162 million customer information system, which went online in September.
The council voted 12-0 to place a moratorium on disconnection notices. DWP officials estimate about 70,000 of the utility's 1.4 million customers have received late bills or been charged inaccurate utility fees since the system was put into use.
The motion, introduced by Councilman Mitchell Englander, also requires the DWP to provide an update every 30 days on steps taken to remedy the billing issues.
The utility on Tuesday implemented a virtual hold phone system that allows customers to hang up after five minutes of waiting for a DWP customer service representative to pick up, and receive a call back.
DWP officials on Monday also moved to halt the issuance of shutoff notices and disconnection activity.
DWP General Manager Ron Nichols told the council that despite ``numerous dress rehearsals'' prior to the system rollout, problems were inevitable. He said the complexity of the transition from an antiquated, 39-year-old system to the new system meant that meter information was unavailable for many customers.
``All utilities estimate bills when they can't read a meter,'' he said. ``We've had a higher number of them because of the changeover.''
Englander, who dubbed the rollout problems ``billing-gate,'' told Nichols that he was ``not comforted in hearing all the excuses with where we're at.''
Englander shared ``nightmare stories'' from ``families, seniors on fixed incomes,'' who said they were put on hold for 10 hours, and whose bank accounts were ``instantly pillaged'' when incorrect bill amounts were automatically drawn out.
Councilman Mitch O'Farrell said he has received complaints from customers who said they owed $40 but were charged more than $1,700.
He urged the DWP to take greater care with its customers, especially with families preparing to cook Thanksgiving meals.
Councilman Paul Krekorian criticized DWP officials for not giving the public enough notice about expected hiccups in the rollout, such as the ``wildly varying estimated bills.''
Because of prolonged customer service wait times -- over the phone and at physical service centers -- customers ``couldn't reach a human being to resolve what was clearly incorrect,'' he said.
``We have some work to do,'' said DWP Assistant General Manager of Customer Relations Sharon Groves, who added that the utility will now manually examine any bill of more than $100 to check for accuracy.
The average service call wait time has also climbed to 40 minutes, up from the usual 10-15 minutes, because customers were calling in to dispute inaccurate bills, utility officials said last week.