"Please help me," said the letter from an 85-year-old reader in West Hills. "I am having trouble with my utility bill from the L.A.D.W.P."
If only I had a dollar for every letter or email like that I've received.
I'll fill you in on the West Hills case in a moment, but first I have to say it's no wonder that Los Angeles Department of Water and Power customers have trust issues.
They've seen the stories about the new $178-million billing system that turned out to be a piece of junk. Some customers are getting billed too much, some too little, and some not at all, setting them up for huge catch-up bills, many of which are still being disputed.
Then they see that millions of dollars have been hosed away by two DWP nonprofits whose spending habits were slammed in a pair of audits.
In a letter to the editor, Mitch Paradise, a West Los Angeles teacher and screenwriter, spoke for many when he wrote:
"Los Angeles seems to go out of its way to give the appearance of being little better than a Third World banana republic, corrupt and pugnaciously contemptuous of its citizenry."
When I called Paradise, he was firecracker hot about the loose spending at the two alleged safety and training nonprofits overseen by Brian D'Arcy and his minions at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union. When the lid on those trusts was lifted, the stink was bad enough to cross a ratepayer's eyes. To add to the sting, Mayor Eric Garcetti's DWP chief inexplicably sided with D'Arcy.
"I'm unplugging things left and right over here — unplugging the TV set at night," said Paradise, who did not appreciate that while teachers went eight years without raises and he was conserving in order to cover his bills, several managers at the DWP trusts were making about $220,000 a year and charging as much as $30,000 worth of gasoline over four years.
"I'm a union guy, UTLA, WGA, but this D'Arcy guy is what gives it a bad name," Paradise said.
Actually, D'Arcy has played City Hall for years, bankrolling candidates and reaping the benefits. But one city councilman has had enough. Mitch O'Farrell said last week that ratepayers "have been duped" in the nonprofit follies, and he wants to scrap the questionable trusts at the first opportunity.
In the meantime, let's go back to West Hills and the case of 85-year-old Ellie Haney, who became convinced that the utility was estimating her power and water usage, and getting it wrong. She got suspicious when DWP told her it had read her power meter on a day when her gate was locked, preventing access.
"I said, 'Of course you estimated,' and he didn't answer," Haney said of her conversation with a customer service rep.
Haney's latest bill showed a $316.95 "corrections" adjustment to her benefit, but there was no explanation of what the mistakes had been, or when, or how often. So how could she trust any of the numbers? Then she noticed that despite having her front and back lawns ripped out early this year and replaced by rock gardens, her water bill nearly doubled to $60. That's not a fortune, but on a fixed income, it's significant.
She dialed DWP.
"I'm on hold a while, and they transfer me to someone else and I'm on hold again."
Mrs. Haney was finally told the water meter had been eyeballed a few weeks earlier by a meter reader, so her water usage was not an estimate, it was real. Maybe she had a leaky pipe, DWP told her, but Mrs. Haney found no evidence of that. And then she decided to read the water meter herself.
"But I couldn't get down on my hands and knees, so I called a neighbor," Haney said.
The neighbor, Dana Blackman, couldn't read the meter.
Because the glass lens was caked over with dirt and grime.
Ahahhhh! The DWP could not have read that meter, thought Mrs. Haney, a pretty good detective.
"We had to use a flashlight, a magnifying glass, and wet rags and paper towels to clean it," she said. When I went to visit, Blackman confirmed this account.
"I had a helmet flashlight," Blackman said.
Maybe DWP should hire her.
I called DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo to ask about Mrs. Haney's bill, and he said her rock garden actually has paid off. If you compare her most recent water use to the same two-month period last year, it went down significantly.
But how, pray tell, could DWP have read the water meter through a dirty lens?
Ramallo put David Wright, head of customer service, on the phone. Wright told me it's not uncommon for meters to become quickly covered with dirt after a reading.
Excuse me, but I share Mrs. Haney's skepticism. And after my visit, Mrs. Haney said she got a call from an irritated DWP rep.
"She wasn't very happy," Mrs. Haney told me. "She said, 'I would have preferred that you called us rather than the media.' I said, 'I did call and talked to different people and I got nowhere.' And then I asked her, 'When you said media, who did you mean?' And she said, 'I think his name is Steve Lopez.'"
Yes, ma'am, it is. And I don't know what you do at DWP, but I want you to quit harassing Mrs. Haney.
She's certainly not alone in wondering whether her bills are accurate, and in fact, a class-action lawsuit against the utility was updated May 7 with new allegations of outrageous billing.
The lawyers told me they're looking into an ongoing dispute at the South L.A. home of Ernest Johnson, a convalescing 90-year-old man who got a $9,000 water bill last summer. His granddaughter, Tanisha Miles, was shocked.
"They must be crazy," said Miles, a registered nurse, who insisted the bill was wrong. Way wrong.
Miles said DWP threatened to cancel the service, so she is working longer hours to pay off the bill even as she disputes it. Ramallo said there appears to be a leak on the property, and service will not be shut off while the matter is settled.
I'll let you know how it turns out. In the meantime, an observation:
Ratepayers have spent $4 million every year on the two nonprofits that fought efforts to open their books. Meanwhile, the budget for the DWP ratepayer advocate is less than $2 million, and with a staff of four people, and a host of other watchdog duties, it only has time to investigate 50 or so of these complicated billing disputes annually.
I've got three things to say.
Get rid of the good-for-nothing nonprofits.
Give the $4 million to the ratepayer advocate's office.
And do not mess with Mrs. Haney.