Audit ordered of Seattle City Light, national ranking slides while exec gets raise

Seattle City council member Teresa Mosqueda announced Tuesday that she is requesting an audit of Seattle City Light’s billing practices, including how the department responds to customers who appeal ‘catch up’ bills due to the system making estimates of electricity reads.

“Why request this audit?” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon asked.

“Well, as the chair of the committee that has oversight over City Light, we've received numerous calls from individuals across Seattle, my neighbor included, who've received unexpectedly high bills,” council member Teresa Mosqueda said. “I want to make sure that there's accountability. That we have a clear answer for why there's unanticipatedly high costs.”

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In her letter to the city auditor requesting an audit, Mosqueda wrote, “consistent issues such as these adversely impact not only customers, but also perception of the department and the city as whole.”

The audit will also examine how the utility prevents and catches “erroneous or unanticipated” bills, how it determines whether bills are accurate, how it accommodates customers who need to pay off higher than expected bills, and City Light’s process for reimbursement if customers have been overcharged.

Mayor Jenny Durkan said she's already looking at many of these issues.

“Is this audit necessary?” Linzi Sheldon asked.

“We've been working with the auditor on a whole range of things,” Durkan said. “We'll sit down with them and they can really help us identify those things where they can maybe bring some resources to the table, to look at some issues that we haven't flagged. But I think most of the things she’s cited to the auditor, we already have underway.”

The audit announcement comes as KIRO 7 has learned City Light dropped significantly in its scores as part of the annual J.D. Power Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study. Last year, City Light ranked third, with 741 points in overall customer satisfaction within what’s called the West Mid-Sized segment; this year it tied for seventh, with 714 points

The study looks at six factors: power quality and reliability; corporate citizenship; communications; price; customer service; and billing and payment. In the billing and payment category in 2017, City Light scored 786. In 2018, it scored 771, dropping 15 points.

KIRO 7 asked Mosqueda for her reaction.

“I am going to bring forward the data you provided about the J.D. Power and Associates analysis to the interview panel on Thursday, and ask them those questions myself,” she said, referencing the interview hearing for Debra Smith, the woman nominated by the mayor’s office to be the next CEO of City Light.

The scores were no surprise to Amy Bowles, who represents about 700 City Light workers, including customer service employees and meter readers, as part of PTE Local 17.

“Frankly, morale is pretty low,” she said. “It’s been a difficult time period.”

“What did you think when council member Mosqueda said, ‘We’re doing an audit’?” Linzi Sheldon asked.

“I was optimistic and excited,” Bowles said. “Looking forward to the what this audit uncovers for us.”

Bowles said City Light employees are just as fed up with the billing issues as customers are; they are often the first people irate customers talk to when they receive a large bill and, she said, customers can take out their frustration out on them.

“That’s what the employees—the hard-working employees of City Light—are facing on a daily basis,” she said.

Mosqueda also touched on this issue in her letter to the city auditor.

"I am personally concerned with the impacts on morale when so often the 'reasons' given by management boil down to 'that was the failure of an employee,' when it appears that there is a failure of the process,” she wrote.

Over the past year, City Light has dealt with issues that include a massive billing backlog that peaked in the winter.

But customers like Benjamin Freedman have still gotten giant catch-up bills as recently as this summer. In his case, he received a bill for $450 when his bill is normally, he said, about $37.

“I was shocked,” Freedman said. “Nothing’s really changed in how we’re using energy in the apartment.”

City Light later explained that the utility had estimated his usage for eight months, and then charged him for the additional usage at the higher summer rate—a ‘catch-up’ bill, as Mosqueda is calling them.

The utility also admitted in June to missing the line for sales tax in its contract for new smart meters, a $5 million mistake that contributed to the project going $17.4 million over budget.

Even with these issues, KIRO 7 discovered the director of customer care, Kelly Enright, who’s overseen the billing issues and smart meters, received a 4% raise. In 2017, she was paid about $202,000. In 2018, city data shows that her salary increased to more than $210,000.

KIRO 7 asked Mosqueda for her response.

“I think overall as a public utility, we want to make sure that people see the public dollar being put to good use,” she said.

City Light said on Tuesday that the billing system is operating “as it was designed to,” and stated it will support the city auditor in his review.

In the meantime, Mosqueda and the mayor’s office are also working on eliminating discrimination in the workplace at City Light, something highlighted by the Seattle Silence Breakers earlier in the year. Bowles said employees have complained repeatedly about issues like racism, sexism and ageism, and she looks forward to working with the utility on improving workplace culture.