With DWP, thankful for small things (very small)

Customers are incorrectly billed and can't get through on the phone. Millions of dollars are missing. But agency officials do own up to a $103-million math error.

This being a week in which we should consider what we're thankful for, I'd like to send a shout-out to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

As I was saying in my Wednesday column, you've got to love the ongoing mystery of the two DWP-affiliated nonprofits that can't seem to explain what they did with $40 million in ratepayer money. The city controller is now on the case, so there's hope. But if I had to guess which will come first — an answer from DWP, or the Rose Parade — I'm going with the floats.

And by the way, that wasn't the only item of interest that popped up at last week's DWP commission meeting. Commissioner Jill Banks Barad said she'd heard from some unhappy customers who tried to report flooding and other problems but waited on hold forever. In one case, she said, someone from DWP finally picked up the phone and advised the caller to try again the next day.

"What is being done to get to people more quickly?" Barad asked. "This is like calling 911 and being put on hold and then being told to call back tomorrow."

"You're right," responded DWP General Manager Ron Nichols. "We do have an unusual backlog right now."

Yes, they do seem to be experiencing a few problems related to the utility's new meter-reading and billing system. As the DWP conceded in a story by my colleague Catherine Saillant, hordes of customers have been receiving late or inaccurate bills and even termination notices. When they've called customer service to protest, they've been kept on hold approximately as long as it takes to have a root canal.

These glitches followed a three-year, $59-million investment in the new system, utility officials said. (Keep that dollar figure in mind, because we'll revisit it shortly.)

I heard from a lot of unhappy DWP customers, as well as from a friend who said he hasn't gotten a bill since July.

"I just called DWP and they told me they installed a new billing system and for some reason, the billing system cannot create an electric bill for me," he said. "When are they planning to bill me? What are they going to do when I freak out because I receive a bill for thousands of dollars at once?"

Norm in Pacific Palisades wrote to say he'd been on hold for up to an hour on several occasions trying to resolve a billing dispute. After being told "don't worry, the invoices are based on estimates, not actual meter readings," among other things, he was told his meter would be read that day and he'd get a call with the results.

"I've heard zilch," Norm said.

Diane in Van Nuys wrote to say "the new bills look exactly the same and are even more inaccurate," telling me she installed solar panels and her electric bill increased.

You can't blame DWP customers for being a little grouchy. While their rates continue rising, the agency pays higher salaries than other utilities do, its employees don't pay out of pocket for healthcare premiums, the primary labor union tries to buy elections and then a new billing system overloads the complaint hotline.

I called DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo, who, along with two DWP officials, said this was a huge undertaking and glitches were expected as an outdated system was replaced. But only a small percentage of customers are having problems, he said, and eventually there will be more efficient and accurate billing for everyone.

And how long will that take? A few billing cycles, they said, so you'll have to keep your seat belt fastened for several more months. On the bright side, if you can call it that, Ramallo said the waiting time on the crisis line was down to 37 minutes.

Now let's get back to the $59 million. I specifically asked Ramallo and others at the DWP if that was just for the equipment, or if it covered everything, including outside contracting.

Everything, they said.

The next day, Brian D'Arcy, business manager of Local 18 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, issued a statement calling the new system an "epic failure" and demanding an apology from Mayor Eric Garcetti and DWP officials. And by the way, D'Arcy added, it didn't cost $59 million, but $150 million.

It was nice to finally hear from D'Arcy, who has had virtually nothing to say about how the $40 million in ratepayer money has been spent by the two mysterious nonprofits he helps oversee. D'Arcy, who backed Wendy Greuel for mayor and lost big-time, has been under pressure from Garcetti to come clean on the nonprofits. So you could almost see the grin on his face as he poked the mayor and DWP officials in the eye, asking them to explain the $150-million embarrassment.

So what was it, $59 million, as I was told, or $150 million?

When I checked back with Ramallo, he changed his story, saying the DWP paid $59.79 million to contractor PricewaterhouseCoopers. But software and hardware cost another $25.7 million, and additional costs brought the total to $98.4 million. Then there were the internal labor costs — $63.1 million.

By my math, that's $162 million.

"Our apologies for not responding correctly to the question you posed yesterday," Ramallo said. "We were moving quickly and did not respond correctly."

It's the DWP. I don't expect perfection. And in the spirit of the season, all I'm going to say is thanks.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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