An audit of astoundingly high Seattle City Light electric bills and confounding customer service reveals the agency still has far to go to serve the public adequately. Reforms should be fast-tracked, especially in light of the coronavirus economic downturn.
The 52-page report City Auditor David G. Jones released April 3 confirmed reports of billing and communication dysfunctions that run completely opposite how a public utility is supposed to function.
City Light’s inability to keep up with city growth led to billing thousands of homeowners based on estimated utility usage month after month. This was intended to be a short-term mechanism to get a bill out until a utility worker could read a meter in person. A lowball estimate limited the possibility of overbilling for a cycle.
But in 2017, City Light began allowing up to two years of bills to be based on estimates, allowing unbilled use to mount over time. When the accounts were eventually squared with the meter’s numbers, bills in the thousands of dollars could result.
City Light compounded this error by trapping customers struggling to catch up in customer-service hell. A deluge of complaints flooded call-center resources, and front-line employees lacked ability to resolve basic issues like setting up payment plans. Hours on hold and cycles of handoffs ensued. The agency would send letters threatening to shut off electricity, even though it had internally banned shut-offs for nonpayment.
The litany of poor practices the auditor found runs long. City Light said it has implemented two of the recommended corrections and is working toward 14 more.
Given that reports of bad billing and worse responses have been public for more than two years, a bureaucratic promise of incremental improvement is not enough. City Light General Manager and CEO Debra Smith, who has been at City Light since 2018, ought to explain publicly why the agency has been unable to step up sooner.
She also should aggressively accelerate the schedule of reforms yet to be made. The goal date of Dec. 30 to empower more staff to approve payment plans is several billing cycles too late for City Light customers who have lost income and jobs in the COVID-19 economic crash. Because systemic improvement has been so slow, the utility stands poorly prepared for the tidal wave of need that has arrived.
That’s mismanagement. Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council are responsible for oversight and must account for why a widely acknowledged agency problem is still festering.