Despite promises to speed up customer service response times, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's telephone system is still making callers wait an average of nearly 30 minutes on hold, according to a new DWP website.
A billing information page was launched this week to coincide with the arrival of Marcie Edwards, the new DWP head selected by Mayor Eric Garcetti to lead the city-owned utility.
A chart on the website shows that wait times for customer calls averaged 29 minutes in late February, two minutes less than reported for the second week of November, when city officials vowed to fix an overwhelmed call system.
Randy Howard, a newly appointed manager in the utility's customer service department, acknowledged that wait times haven't improved significantly, partly because of a heavy volume of calls about billing errors and past due statements.
Moreover, he said, nearly 50 customer service representatives are still in training and have not yet started responding to calls. Some recently hired meter readers also remain in training. Howard noted that the number of calls has declined and ratepayers are increasingly opting to pay and resolve billing issues without having to wait on hold. Many have chosen a call-back feature, rather than wait on the phone, he said.
That option was requested by Councilman Mitch Englander after angry ratepayers recounted at a City Hall hearing waiting on hold up to an hour before a customer service representative picked up.
Englander said hold times are stilling "unacceptably long" and the call-back feature doesn't always work.
"My office calls every week to check," he said. "People are still very upset. They are not getting their questions answered."
The municipal utility, the largest in the nation, has been dogged by billing problems since the Sept. 2 rollout of a new computer network that was intended to improve service by integrating all aspects of DWP operations. But tens of thousands of erroneous bills have gone out, officials say, prompting a crush of calls from customers.
The billing problems have added to the controversies surrounding the utility, including a public fight pitting Garcetti, the city attorney and the city controller against the DWP's biggest union over the release of financial documents. As part of his promise to reform the DWP, Garcetti recently recruited Edwards, Anaheim's city manager, who formerly ran its public utility. The new Web page, http://www.ladwp.com/BillingInfo, is a first step toward keeping customers up to date on efforts to resolve billing problems, Edwards said in a letter to ratepayers this week. The website will be updated weekly, she said.
"We want them to know that we are committed to regaining their trust and providing the type of customer service they expect and deserve," Edwards said in a statement.
Englander welcomed the website, but said it doesn't go far enough.
"I don't put this on her shoulders because she just arrived," he said of Edwards. "But launching a new website is less than a Band-Aid solution. They need to surgically make changes to the system. And quickly."