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Customer bank account overdrawn when DWP charges 12 times normal

Two members of the Los Angeles City Council called Friday for a halt to shutoff notices by the Department of Water and Power until problems with the utility's troubled billing system are fixed.

Council members Mitchell Englander and Nury Martinez, both of whom represent the San Fernando Valley, asked their colleagues to impose the moratorium while the DWP works to bring an end to inaccurate bills and other woes associated with the rollout of new customer software at the DWP.

At least one customer complained of getting a bill 12 times her normal rate -- so much that it overdrew her bank account.

Englander said his office has been receiving calls from ratepayers who were unable to get their billing issues resolved -- some of whom waited on hold for as long as an hour and a half.

“The fear of disconnection from vital utilities, particularly during the holiday season, is unfair to those who are essentially unable to resolve these problems due to inadequacies within the DWP’s new billing and customer service system,” he said.

One of Englander's constituents, Chatsworth resident Lois Gass, said she received an erroneous bill last month for more than $3,900, a sum that is more than 12 times the amount she is normally charged. Because she set up her DWP bill to be automatically withdrawn by her bank, the latest DWP bill caused her to receive a notice that her account was overdrawn.

Gass, 69, said she called the DWP and stayed on hold for an hour, until the call was disconnected. She welcomed Englander’s proposal, saying she has already received two disconnect notices from the utility -- even after a customer service representative told her to pay nothing until the problem is resolved.

“I’m frustrated. I’m worried. I’m angry. I’m upset," Gass said. "I can’t give any more adjectives to describe how I feel about this. It shouldn’t happen. There’s no excuse and I feel helpless.”

DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo said the bills were being “handled with a great deal of care to avoid anybody being shut off improperly.”

“The only account that would be subject to shutoff right now are individuals who are confirmed by a senior manager in customer service as being chronically delinquent,” he said.

The request for a moratorium must be heard by the council’s Energy and Environment Committee before reaching the full council. It was made on the same day that the top official for the DWP's main employee union lashed out at Mayor Eric Garcetti over the problems with the billing system.

Brian D'Arcy, who heads the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, called for Garcetti and DWP General Manager Ron Nichols to issue "an apology and an explanation" for the problems, which have resulted in thousands of inaccurate bills. Those issues have led to lengthy waiting times for customers who telephone the DWP.

"The current situation is so dire that employees feel threatened by the hostile environment that has resulted from this epic failure," D'Arcy said.

D'Arcy's union and its affiliates spent $2 million to defeat Garcetti and elect former City Controller Wendy Greuel in this year's election. Since then, the mayor and the union have tussled over such issues as money spent by the DWP on two training institutes.

Garcetti spokesman Jeff Millman said the mayor has already ordered the DWP to install an automated call-back system so ratepayers don’t have to remain on hold with customer service. That system is supposed to go into place next week, Millman said.

"Mayor Garcetti was elected to fix the problems at DWP," Millman said. "The voters rejected the union’s control of the DWP, and the union should stop the political games because the campaign is over."


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