DWP complaints keep pouring in

Columnist Steve Lopez: Emails from irritated Department of Water and Power customers continue to flood inbox

Never thought I'd say this, but I'm beginning to feel a little sympathy for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Why?

Because I'm getting bombarded with ratepayer complaints, just as the ginormous utility has been for the last couple of years. And like the DWP, I can't keep up.

The good news is that nobody has topped the Van Nuys couple who got a $51,000 water bill, so I won't have to pay up on my promise to deliver a low-flush toilet to anyone who bested them. But there has been no drought of emails from irritated customers.

"The bills I get from DWP are erratic and nonsensical," wrote Carl Hoppe.

"I have a bill … I've been disputing for over a year," lamented Laura Mann.

"This is insane," wrote Liz Strother, who moved into a new house in November but still hasn't gotten a bill. "I have been calling regularly and keep getting the same answer: 'The bill is in the mail.' "

Be careful what you wish for, Liz. Sharon McManus of Van Nuys said she didn't get a bill for a year, then got one for $7,500. And then, with a 2-year-old to care for, her water and power were shut off when she demanded an explanation before making payment.

"We were on the phone for 21/2 hours, and they demanded we pay the entire bill without explanation," said McManus, who agreed to make a $3,300 payment to have the service resumed. But even that was a nightmare.

"They put us through to automated payment, which disconnected us three times."

And by the way, said McManus, she owns a bar in Hollywood that hasn't received a DWP bill in a year and a half, despite repeated attempts to get things straightened out.

None of this is surprising because the DWP admitted to me that although it's worked through the bulk of its billing system problems, the backlog of disputed cases is in the thousands and there aren't enough investigators to dig through them.

Tim Blood, a lawyer whose firm has filed a class-action suit on behalf of ratepayers, said his office has been contacted by more than 150 customers with billing disputes. One of those cases involves Canoga Park couple Brad and Mary Fagerstrom, who also wrote to me.

"I did not serve in Vietnam and pay my price in service and blood to see these people rip the city off," wrote Brad, a Purple Heart veteran.

The Fagerstroms are both retired and on a fixed income, and they take care of Mary's 91-year-old mother, who lives with them. So their budget is tight, and they were shocked when their DWP bill last August soared above $1,600 with so-called corrected charges.

"This whole thing is so phony," fumed Brad, who held forth with a damning oral history of DWP politics, shenanigans and screw-ups. He's particularly incensed that the utility often has enough of an annual surplus to kick a quarter of a billion dollars over to the city.

"That's just overcharges to us," he said.

And don't get him started on the $40 million worth of ratepayer money that went to two mysterious DWP trusts that refused to explain their dealings and resisted audits. Two trusts, Brad pointed out, that were run in part by the union that has bankrolled City Council campaigns and won salaries that soar above those at other utilities and at City Hall.

In other words, Brad already was in a lather before he studied the details of his "corrected" bills and realized the difference was a small fortune in back charges for water use going back to 2013. That's when the utility's $178 million billing system went into service and messed up thousands of bills.

For water alone, the Fagerstroms were back-charged $494.09 for one two-month pay period, $366.08 for another, and $422.65 for a third. The charges were based on alleged water use that was several times higher than normal, putting them into a more expensive tier.

But what could they possibly have used all that water for?

To save both water and money, the Fagerstroms stopped watering their yard in 2013, letting both the front and back lawns go brown.

"It doesn't make sense," said Brad, who added that one of the corrected bills was marked "estimated," as if he needed one more reason to flip out. And then DWP threatened a shut-off if he didn't pay the balance.

"It's so frustrating," said the more understated but equally frazzled Mary. She said they made several visits to DWP offices downtown and in the Valley to plead their case, but they got nowhere.

"They just say the meter's right and you have to pay the money," said Brad.

"They sent somebody out to have a look at the property," said Mary, and the guy even crawled under the house to look for leaks, but found nothing. "He agreed with Brad that we couldn't possibly have used the amount of water on those bills."

You'd think that would make a difference, but the Fagerstroms are still stuck in the Twilight Zone. Brad said DWP has offered to put him on a payment plan to chip away at the balance, but he's not inclined to pay a bill he doesn't think he owes.

DWP refused to answer my questions about the case because of the pending litigation. Spokesman Joe Ramallo said any customers with billing issues can call 1-800-DIALDWP and ask for a supervisor — good luck to one and all, by the way — or tell it to DWP GM Marcie Edwards online at http://www.tellmeladwp.com.

If you try that, and feel as though you've only tumbled further down the rabbit hole, email me or call Tim Blood's law office at 619-338-1100.

One more thing. Doris Tillman, the 71-year-old South L.A. woman who has been without running water since August after falling behind on DWP bills she disputes, is still lugging bottled water and trying to negotiate a resumption of service. A reader has begun a campaign to help her at http://www.gofundme.com/water4doris.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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