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Los Angeles DWP should guide customers through its red tape

Measure I on the March 8 ballot would create a DWP ratepayer advocate — somewhere for people to turn when they feel they're not getting the straight dope from the utility's service reps.

March 01, 2011|David Lazarus

Kimberly Vincelli may not be the poster girl for reforming the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. But her case illustrates the need for a ratepayer advocate that people could turn to when they feel they're getting muscled by the utility.

Vincelli, 53, of Tarzana received a residential bill for almost $18,000. Something's clearly wrong when a bill gets that high, and Vincelli believed she wasn't to blame.

An examination of her DWP records suggests that maybe if she'd paid her water and power bills more diligently, she wouldn't be facing this trouble now.

But the utility also appears to be at fault for not explaining things clearly to a customer who says she repeatedly tried to get straight answers, and for keeping the lights on for years as unpaid bills piled up.

Vincelli's situation highlights the lack of a readily accessible resource for ratepayers having trouble with the country's largest municipally owned utility, a place where they could deal with folks who are ostensibly on their side.

A ballot measure to be voted on in the March 8 L.A. city election, Charter Amendment I, would fix that by creating an Office of Public Accountability at the DWP, providing some much-needed oversight for an agency that for too long has operated beyond the reach of most customers.

That is, if the nine-member citizens commission established by the measure is serious about protecting ratepayers, and if it appoints an executive director whose focus is on customers first.

The experience of Vincelli and others like her suggests there's as much a need for a full-fledged ombudsman as there is for a budgetary watchdog.

Vincelli, the owner of a plumbing company, moved from a house in West Hills to a place in Tarzana in August 2009. She said she contacted the DWP at the time to cancel service at her old address and start service at her new one.

Easy, right? Not so much.

"A few months after I moved, I realized that I hadn't gotten a bill from them yet," Vincelli recalled. She contacted the DWP and, she said, a service rep explained that the utility was behind on its bill processing and that she'd be receiving a statement any day.

So Vincelli waited. And waited.

Her first bill after the move finally arrived in February 2010. It was for about $1,600, covering the seven months that she'd been in Tarzana.

Then a bill arrived a couple of months later for almost $12,000. Vincelli said she immediately contacted the DWP but couldn't get an explanation for what was going on. The service reps insisted that she pay the money first and then the utility would dig into the situation.

Subsequent bills brought the total owed to $17,762.79 as of December. And still Vincelli said she couldn't get a clear answer as to why she was being charged so much.

She hired an attorney to try to get to the bottom of things. He also got nowhere.

The DWP, needless to say, sees things differently. The utility maintains that Vincelli racked up more than $10,000 in unpaid bills at her West Hills address and never submitted a request that service be terminated when she moved to Tarzana.

Kevin Shost, the agency's assistant director of customer service, also disputed that Vincelli was told she'd have to pay up before the DWP would investigate her problem.

"That's not our policy, absolutely not," he said. "We try to work with our customers."

I believe Shost when he says the DWP has tried to work with Vincelli and has extended every courtesy to give her additional time to pay her bills. But I also believe Vincelli when she says she has no idea why she owes so much.

It's been my experience that people who are trying to duck financial responsibilities don't retain a lawyer and contact the newspaper. Those are signs of a person who feels genuinely aggrieved.

So we return to Charter Amendment I. If nothing else, a ratepayer advocate would provide Vincelli and others with a place to turn when they feel they're not getting the straight dope from the utility's service reps.

It would also provide the DWP with greater accountability to the people it serves, which would improve operations and customer relations.

Investor-owned utilities in California are overseen by the state Public Utilities Commission, which has a Division of Ratepayer Advocates specifically for such situations. The office handles complaints from the public and attempts to cut through bureaucratic red tape.

The DWP needs something like that, and it needs to give its ratepayer advocate the staff and funding necessary to provide customers with a level playing field.

Measure I is coupled with Measure J, which would require the DWP to better coordinate its budgeting process with the city's. The idea is to avoid repeats of last spring's face-off, in which the utility threatened to withhold $73.5 million in funding promised to the city if it didn't receive a hefty rate hike.

Joe Ramallo, a spokesman for the DWP, said the utility supports Charter Amendment I "and will be ready to begin working immediately with the Office of Public Accountability" if the measure is approved by voters.

That may not be soon enough for Vincelli. But it would certainly be a plus for the next time an $18,000 utility bill lands in someone's lap.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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