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Troubled DWP billing system more costly than cited

The new billing system, riddled with problems, cost ratepayers more than twice the $59 million cited by the utility's spokesman.

November 22, 2013|By Catherine Saillant and David Zahniser

A new Department of Water and Power billing system that has been riddled with problems cost ratepayers more than twice the $59 million cited by the utility's spokesman in recent days.

The total cost of staff time, contractors and software for the troubled system, which has brought an avalanche of public complaints, is $162 million, DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo said Friday.

About $63 million of that was labor costs for DWP employees who were diverted from regular duties to help roll out the program, Ramallo said. An additional $98.9 million was spent on software, vendors and equipment needed to pull data from 50 different sources into one unified system, he said.

The fuller accounting came hours after the leader of the city-owned utility's largest union slammed Mayor Eric Garcetti and DWP officials for the problem-plagued launch of the system, which has generated inaccurate bills and jammed customer service phone lines as ratepayers try to sort out errors.

Brian D'Arcy, head of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, accused the mayor and his DWP managers of moving too quickly to launch the new billing program, which went live in September and is supposed to bring major improvements to an outdated system. D'Arcy said some customers are waiting an hour on the phone to protest service cancellation notices and "still aren't getting answers."

Ramallo said the department never intended to mislead city officials or the public by initially citing a $59-million cost figure. That was the amount of a contract with PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the project's prime contractor and systems integrator, he said. "There are other costs that are part of the total project,'' he said. "All of these amounts have been on board agendas, were approved by boards and were approved by the council.''

DWP officials don't think outlays for employees who are working on the project but already on the agency payroll should be included in the cost calculation, he added.

Councilman Mitch Englander on Friday proposed the DWP suspend all service termination notices to customers until the billing problems are corrected. It's not clear when the proposal might reach the council for a vote.

One of Englander's constituents, Chatsworth resident Lois Gass, 69, said she received a bill last month for about $3,900, more than 12 times the amount she normally pays. Because Gass had automatic bill paying, the erroneous DWP invoice caused her bank account to be overdrawn. When she called the DWP, she said she was stuck on hold for an hour and then cut off.

Two service disconnection warnings have arrived, after she reached a customer service representative who advised her to pay nothing until the problem is resolved, she said.

"I'm frustrated. I'm worried. I'm angry. I'm upset,'' Gass said. "I can't give any more adjectives to describe how I feel about this. It shouldn't happen."

Ramallo confirmed Friday that Gass' bill was inaccurate. "We will cancel that customer's bill and we will rebill her correctly," he said.

D'Arcy said frontline DWP employees are taking the brunt of ratepayer anger. "The current situation is so dire that employees feel threatened by the hostile environment that has resulted from this epic failure," he said.

IBEW and its affiliates spent $2 million supporting former City Controller Wendy Greuel in this year's mayoral race. Recently, D'Arcy has been at odds with Garcetti and the mayor's DWP commissioners over the release of documents detailing how tens of millions in ratepayer money has been spent at two nonprofit trusts created by the union and the utility.

Garcetti's spokesman, Jeff Millman, said the mayor has ordered the DWP to deploy an automated messaging system so customers can get callbacks and avoid staying on hold for long stretches. He said D'Arcy's union should cease its attacks.

"The voters rejected the union's control of the DWP," Millman said. "The union should stop the political games because the campaign is over.''

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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