In 2018, irate Seattle City Light customers began complaining to councilmembers and to the media about bloated bills.
These were not small chunks of money that had angered customers, but $2,415, or $925 or $2.253.73 and completely out of whack with previous bills.
Among those receiving the complaints was Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, then on a committee with oversight over City Light.
” . . . my office has fielded numerous concerns regarding alleged over-billing,” she wrote in a formal request in August 22, 2018.
That request was sent to the Seattle Office of City Auditor to essentially find out what had happened.
On Friday, some 19 months later, City Auditor David G. Jones released a hefty, 52-page report that detailed what his office believed had gone wrong at the utility, and what changes should be made:
“Lack of controls.” “A customer could go two years without having a bill based on an actual meter read.” “Perceived lack of empathy.” “Multiple hand-offs to resolve customer complaints.”
The report’s 16 recommendations for changes — all agreed to by City Light — included:
• Increased staffing during the months, such as June through September, when new accounts were set up either by customers moving or new arrivals to the city, such as when the University of Washington begins classes in the fall.
• Give customer service representatives — the person you first talk to about your bill — the authority to set up payment arrangements. The audit says all such requests had to go to the agency’s Credit and Collections group, and “the number of employees who can approve these arrangements is limited.”
Said Jones, “It becomes a funnel, when you’re inundated, and you only have one or two people who can make decisions.”
• Actually contact a customer when an issue was resolved. The audit says that what was happening was that whatever adjustment was made showed up in the next bills, leaving the customer to “still wonder what is happening.”
These high bills came as the utility had problems handling two major changes.
First, it was switching to a new billing system that, as agencies are wont to do in their creativeness, it had named CCB, for Customer Care and Billing.
The system had problems from the start. A March 31, 2016, Seattle Times story said the new system came in at least $34 million over budget, for a total of $85 million.
Then, says the audit, the billing system began with a distinct disadvantage. It was implemented as Seattle kept adding population, and the agency was overwhelmed with new accounts. When CCB went live in September 2016, says the audit, it had a backlog of 4,368 service orders for new accounts.
At the same time, the staff was having to learn this new, complicated billing system. The backlog kept increasing.
Second, to add to the drastic changes, City Light was installing new digital meters touted as being able to do readings six times day.
Previously, that was done manually by 51 meter readers.
Amid this changeover, the utility at times was estimating an electric bill. Reasons it gave for estimating bills included that a gate was locked, a dog was in the yard, the weather was bad, the meter reader was sick.
“You could go up to two years with an estimated bill,” Jones said in an interview.
Based on the audit, City Light now is using six months for estimating a bill (that’s three consecutive bills, as billing is every two months).
Jones said those estimations were sometimes based, for example, on electric heaters being used in mild winter.
What happened then is that a “base line” was created of lower electric use than was taking place.
Then, when finally, an actual reading was done . . . someone like Scott Feldman, who lives in Columbia City with his girlfriend, was given an electric bill for $2,253.73. This was even though their home didn’t use electric heat and they didn’t have air conditioning
In January 2018, he told The Seattle Times said that over a three-day period, he was willing to stay on hold with City Light for three hours.
Feldman is a health-company financial director and had the wherewithal to write letters to the mayor, the City Council and the media.
He then wondered about those who got hit with such a monster bill and were simply overwhelmed.
In a letter included in the audit, Debra Smith, general manager and CEO of City Light, said the agency planned “on substantially implementing your recommendations.”
She wrote, “When I joined City Light a year and a half ago it was clear that improving customer service was critical to the utility’s success.”
The agency says it has completed two of the 16 recommendations, two are “ongoing” and the remaining 12 are “in process” of being implemented. It says its goal is to have staff implement all the recommendations by year’s end, even “with the stay-at-home order in place.”
A spokeswoman for the agency said that Smith was not available for an interview — “she is occupied with efforts in support of Citywide and City Light response to COVID.”
Jones said that in talking to customers for the audit, they told his office, “A lot of heartache could have been reduced if somebody would have just talked to me and explained things to me.”