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City Council Audit Completed to Resolve Billing Problems at Seattle City Light

A performance audit initiated by Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda was published today by the City Auditor to investigate and resolve extreme problems with extremely high bills customers throughout Seattle suddenly received from Seattle City Light when the City-owned utility was implementing major changes to its meter and billing systems. According to the audit report, “City Light has taken steps to reduce unexpected high bills but could further reduce them” by streamlining their dispute resolution process and empowering frontline staff to provide solutions to customers.”

Last year, in response to a large number of calls and emails to my office from City Light customers who reported unexpected large bills and difficulties with the utility’s customer service response, I requested this audit of City Light’s customer care and billing systems,” said Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. “Thank you to the customers who reached out—your advocacy and stories are informing real policy changes. I have appreciated City Light’s collaboration on proactive updates to their billing and communication practices to make sure that no customers are receiving shutoff notices, standing up a Customer Advocacy Team for outreach to customers with large unpaid balances to resolve their accounts and connect low-income households with resources like the Utility Discount Program, suspending shutoffs, and waiving late fees for customers who make payments towards their balance for 6 months. Particularly now during these stressful and uncertain times, no one should live in fear that their electricity will be shut off. There is more work to be done to make sure our low-income households have access to the supports they need to keep the lights on while City Light further updates its billing practices and rate design later this year, and I look forward to working with the new Council Chair of City Light, Councilmember Pedersen, and the utility to build on this work and follow up on the recommendations of the audit.”

Accountability and getting back to the basics of local government are important to me as the new Chair of the Transportation & Utilities Committee and few things are more basic than being able to turn on the lights without being overwhelmed by your electric bill,” said Councilmember Alex Pedersen. “We welcome the City Auditor’s Office report analyzing Seattle City Light’s former problems with unexpectedly high electric bills burdening customers, and I’m happy to hear that the Auditor’s recommended solutions are already being implemented. The shocking billing problems started in 2016 after City Light implemented complex new meter and billing systems and City Light is thankfully working to address these under the leadership of General Manager and CEO Debra Smith, who was appointed by Mayor Durkan in 2018. I look forward to tracking the Auditor’s recommendations and potential impacts on the utility’s budget.”

For the full performance audit, CLICK HERE.

For relief from utility bills due to financial hardship from the coronavirus pandemic, including our policy of “no shut offs,” CLICK HERE for the City Council info and HERE for related info from Mayor’s info.

Audit Report Highlights

WHY WE DID THIS AUDIT

We conducted this audit in response to Seattle City Councilmember Mosqueda’s request to review Seattle City Light’s billing and customer services practices. We were asked to examine how City Light:

· Prevents erroneous and/or unexpected high bills

  • · Communicates with customers about unexpected high bills
  • · Resolves customer complaints and appeals
  • · Provides payment options, and
  • · Reimburses customers who have been overcharged.

HOW WE DID THIS AUDIT

To accomplish the audit’s objectives, we:

  • · Analyzed City Light data
  • · Interviewed City Light managers and staff
  • · Researched promising practices
  • · Surveyed other utilities
  • · Conducted case studies

Background

Seattle City Light (City Light), the City of Seattle’s public electric utility, serves about 461,500 customers in Seattle and surrounding communities. In September 2016, City Light implemented a new billing system, the Customer Care and Billing System (CCB) and in October 2016 began installing advanced meters. These two factors resulted in many City Light customers receiving unexpected high bills due to delayed and estimated bills. In response to numerous concerns from City Light customers about alleged over-billing, Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda asked our office to review City Light’s billing and customer service practices.

What We Found

We found that City Light’s implementation of a new billing system and advanced meters resulted in customers receiving an increased number of unexpected high bills due to estimated and delayed bills. City Light has taken steps to reduce unexpected high bills but could further reduce them by changing two key system parameters. City Light’s dispute resolution process can involve multiple hand-offs to resolve customer complaints and lacks controls to ensure customers are informed that their issue has been resolved. City Light also limits who can authorize payment arrangements.

Recommendations

Our report contains 16 recommendations that address ways City Light could decrease the number of unexpected high bills received by customers, improve handling of customer complaints, make greater use of technology to help customers manage their payments and energy use, apply lessons learned from City Light’s temporarily expanded escalation team, and make it easier for customers to set up payment arrangements.

Department Response

In their formal, written response to our report Seattle City Light stated that they generally concurred with the report findings. Appendix A contains City Light’s written responses to our findings and recommendations.

About the City Auditor’s Office

Seattle voters established the City Auditor’s Office by a 1991 amendment to the City Charter. The office is an independent department within the legislative branch of City government. The City Auditor reports to the City Council and has a four-year term to ensure the City Auditor’s independence in deciding what work the office should perform and reporting the results of this work. The Office of City Auditor conducts performance audits and non-audit projects covering City of Seattle programs, departments, grants, and contracts. The City Auditor’s goal is to ensure that the City of Seattle is run as effectively, efficiently, and equitably as possible in compliance with applicable laws and regulations

NOTE: Due to the COVID-19 crisis, this report is being released to the public online rather than having a separate Committee meeting.

For the complete performance audit of Seattle City Light’s Billing, CLICK HERE.

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