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Couple's $51K Water Bill May Not Be A Good Sign For Proposed DWP Rate Hike

Money down the drain (Photo by frankieleon via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
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In the middle of a widespread customer service debacle that has left a Van Nuys couple with a $51,649.32 water bill, L.A.'s Department of Water and Power is now proposing a rate hike. The $270 million hike over the next five years is intended to cover the costs of a badly aging city infrastructure.

For months, the DWP has been demanding that the Goreshters—an older, water-frugal couple living in a small condo—pay the absurdly inaccurate water bill or have their service shut off, according to the L.A. Times. Despite repeated efforts to contact the DWP to contest the charges, both in-person and over the phone, it finally took pressure from L.A. Times reporter Steve Lopez for the DWP to consider sending an investigator to determine the reason for the $51,649.32 bill, which the utility initially suggested might be caused by a leaky toilet.

According to Lopez, if the couple actually had a $51,649.32, the Goreshter's leak would amount to roughly 6.7 million gallons of water, or "enough to flood half the San Fernando Valley."

And the Goreshters are not alone in their plight against the DWP's billing errors and lack of helpful customer service. Even according to the DWP's director of customer experience, Sharon Grove, the backlog of disputed bills are "in the thousands."

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These billing horror stories have many people wondering that if this is what the DWP's new $178 million billing system looks like, can the department be trusted with the $270 million that they plan to charge customers in the coming years.

It's clear that much of the city's ancient infrastructure requires updating to reduce the ongoing water main breaks and other problems. But when we hear about nightmarish billing errors like that of the Goreshters, or audits aimed at the DWP's alleged mismanagement of more than $40 million of ratepayer money, the proposed rate hikes seem like they're going to be a tough sell.

It's not yet clear how much of a rate hike the DWP will propose. The initial proposal is due to the Board of Water and Power Commissioners in June, and then the mayor, neighborhood councils and the city’s ratepayer advocate will have four months to review the proposal before it goes to a vote.

The DWP argues that they've already saved hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years through hiring freezes, low-interest borrowing, a new labor contract and others means.

Mayor Garcetti—who pledged to not allow utility hikes in 2014—told the L.A. Times that the DWP will have to rebuild trust with customers if they plan to ask for rate hikes. "Like the average ratepayer, I will have to be shown the case," Garcetti said.