UPDATE on Dec. 4 at 10:23 a.m.: DWP says people get huge bills for the opposite reason you'd think: it screwed up its "estimate" of what you owed, low-balling you for months, and now you owe a pile because DWP under-billed you. And it gets worse. See update below.
This past Sunday night, Michael O’Brien opened his bill from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Pulling out a seven-page document, his jaw hit the floor when he got to the end: He was being charged $1,152.46 for his recent utility usage.
The 36-year-old lives in a three-bedroom house in Highland Park, two bedrooms of which, he says, he and his live-in girlfriend don’t really use. “I threw a tantrum,” says O’Brien, a TV writer. "Then I got someone to talk to me."
O’Brien, it turns out, got caught up in mistakes made by the DWP’s new billing system. Among those mistakes, though, is one that the utility owned by the people of L.A. has not exactly trumpeted of late: Despite reports that make its billing problems sound solved, for at least the past year, the DWP has been sending some customers bills that are really just its estimates of how much they used, rather than actual meter readings.
In a public document posted online, the DWP says that in January of 2014, at least 20 percent of customers received bills that reflected its estimates — and those angry customers led a widely publicized backlash against huge, erroneous bills. That same document says that by October, as the DWP worked to fix their system’s myriad problems, that number had dropped to five percent.
But five percent, in sprawling L.A., is still thousands of people.
People like James Patton, who lives in the Fairfax District and says he is among those still getting hammered by botched DWP tallies.
It started last year, in Patton's case, when he got a bill for about $530 and, certain that he hadn’t burned up that much in utilities, called the DWP.
“They said, ‘We’ve been estimating these. If you pay what you would normally pay, we’ll get it all cleared up,’” says Patton, who like O'Brien is a TV writer.
Patton suggested that he pay $170; the DWP rep countered with $275.
“I was like, ‘I’m gonna pay $170,’” he says. “If you’re just making up numbers, I’m gonna make one up myself.”
Patton has since gotten more bills that don’t seem to make sense. Most have tallies of hundreds of dollars over what he owes. He says that he’s had to repeatedly call the DWP to get its errors fixed.
But, he says, being persistent and refusing to back down works.
In other words, argue with the DWP, since they aren't sure of their numbers either.
“I think it was a product of me just saying, ‘No, I’m not gonna pay this if you can’t explain to me how you came to this number,’” he recommends.
“People all over town, I’m sure, are getting these and not questioning it and paying. It’s blowing my mind that this could happen unchecked for so long.”
DWP officials reached for comment said they would try to get back to the Weekly later with a comment.
O’Brien, meanwhile, just got bad news: fighting back doesn't always work. The DWP is standing behind what its formula predicts he used, in the absence of actual meter readings.
They offered him, as a peace pipe, a six-month payment plan to chop away at the $1,152.48, which O’Brien describes as “something you need to do when you're charging someone $1,100 due to your mistake.”
If you think your DWP bill is wrong, call the people's utility at 1 (800) 342-3397.
[Updated Dec. 4, 2104 at 10:23 a.m.] Randy Howard, the DWP's senior assistant general manager of the power system, tells the Weekly that staggeringly high bills like O'Brien's are likely just the opposite of what they seem: the result of several cycles of inaccurate DWP lowball estimates of a customer's usage. Now, DWP is now trying to make people pay up following its purported errors.
"There are still a number of customers who have these historical estimates," he says.
Now, follow this closely folks:
"If they had been low estimates, and the actual [amount due] today is now this high number because we had estimated too low. ... it all got captured in a single bill that looks kinda high now."
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Howard says he understands that these bills — like O'Brien's $1,152 doozy for a couple who doesn't even use their entire space — might be "shocking" to customers. But, DWP expects them to be paid in full.
"It is our belief that if you used it, you should pay for it," he says, and the best the DWP can offer now is some manner of payment plan.
"We will work with them on whatever's necessary," he says. "We don’t want it to be a hardship based on previous estimates that were our fault."
Maybe not, but when the Weekly checked, people who accepted payment plans were charged interest, like a bank loan, so DWP comes out fine.