Nearly two years after the Department of Water and Power rolled out a flawed computer system that produced wildly inaccurate bills and cost ratepayers tens of millions of dollars in overcharges and unmerited penalties, the utility agreed this week to settle several class-action lawsuits by paying refunds to every affected customer. Under the agreement, the DWP will review all 1.6 million residential and business accounts going back to September 2013, when the system came online, and automatically credit or refund all overcharges. Customers will not need to file a claim or even be aware of the error.
DWP General Manager Marcie Edwards had already pledged to analyze accounts for mistakes and to make customers whole. The utility says it still owes customers $36 million of an estimated $44 million in overcharges. The settlement makes that promise legally binding and subject to independent, third-party review. That's essential given the utility's dismal record of customer service, the widespread belief that the DWP cannot police itself and the failure of Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council to properly oversee the agency.
The billing debacle revealed and exacerbated systemic customer service problems within the DWP. This week's settlement commits the utility to new and more aggressive service standards. Within 18 months, the DWP must be able to investigate and respond to most customer billing inquiries within 30 days, and callers should, on average, be connected with a customer service agent within three minutes. (A year ago, the average wait was 40 minutes. Wait time dropped to nearly nine minutes in June and less than three minutes in July.) Again, DWP leaders and Garcetti have set similar goals, but the settlement forces the utility to hire the staff and spend the money to make them a reality.
Lastly, the settlement compels the DWP to create a unit within the department that will be responsible for overseeing the development and implementation of the utility's major information technology projects — with the goal of preventing similar debacles in the future.
Of course, it shouldn't take a court to compel the agency to manage itself properly, respond to reasonable customer concerns or refund money to those it has unfairly overcharged. As for oversight, that's the job of the mayor and the City Council. We're all for a settlement that helps bring order to the DWP, but sooner or later agency officials and city leaders will have to take responsibility themselves.