RICHMOND, Va. -- Newly-obtained data shows thousands of people across the Richmond area have been waiting months, some even years, for the Richmond Department of Public Utilities (DPU) to address their customer concerns, as the department continues to grapple with staffing shortages and aging infrastructure.
Michael Bottoms and Linda Jackson's most recent bill tells them that they owe $1,077 to the City of Richmond for utilities at a house they haven't lived in for more than a year.
“You pay your bills, you try really hard to stay on track, and then you see something like this, and it infuriates you," Jackson said.
The couple moved out of their old home, which was serviced by Richmond's Department of Public Utilities, in July 2022 and into Chesterfield County.
But 13 months later, they're still receiving water and gas bills, despite calling DPU over and over again asking for their account to be closed.
"They basically said they're backlogged," they said. “We’re told to ignore it as well and that they would not send a collections notice, and then they did.”
The bill the couple received in August said it was the "final bill" and "pre-collections notice."
It stated that in order to avoid collection activity, they needed to immediately pay more than $800.
"I don't want this to go onto my credit report," Jackson said. “I’ve always maintained good credit, and I’d like to keep it that way, especially when it’s not my fault.”
Bottoms and Jackson are not alone.
Over the past several months, customers have been reaching out to CBS 6 expressing concerns about DPU -- from estimated meter readings on their bills to the inability to get in contact with customer service, to bills that they should've stopped receiving months ago.
“And we reached out to you because we’ve seen other people experiencing the same dilemma," Bottoms said. "Because there's probably some poor sap out there that is paying it in fear."
New data CBS 6 obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request revealed that there are currently more than 7,000 DPU customers with an unresolved customer service issue.
By the numbers:
- 3,349 customers are waiting for a water leak adjustment
- 2,116 customers are still waiting for service to either start or stop at their new address
- 1,130 customers have an outstanding billing request
- Eight pending water leak adjustment requests date back to 2020, while 2,056 requests remain pending in 2023
- Seven outstanding requests for services to be started or stopped date back to 2021, while 1,537 remain pending in 2023
"It's terrible," Jackson said. “Have a job fair. Really! Get some employees if you’re that backlogged."
However, there are some signs of progress.
In June, DPU began limiting call center hours on Wednesdays so its customer service team could solely focus on resolving service requests. Since then, the department said staff have completed more than 2,800 customer service transactions.
Plus, after a February audit revealed DPU fell into a pattern of estimating a significant number of customers' water bills, resulting in potentially inaccurate charges, DPU has improved its amount of water meters that cannot be read from 14.6% of all water meters to 7.5%.
DPU still has 5,213 water meters to fix out of 69,838 meters total.
The utility department is able to read 99.1% of its gas meters, with just over 1,000 gas meters that cannot currently be read.
DPU said the ongoing issues that cause the department to not read meters and result in estimated bills include:
- A historic increase in customer consumption
- Meters that are obstructed or difficult to access
- Meters that are too old and need to be replaced
For Bottoms and Jackson, they just want their billing headache to go away.
“You can do things with the touch of a button, and that's what I'm not understanding," Bottoms said. "Thirteen months is one heck of a backlog."
DPU provided the following statement with its response to CBS 6's FOIA request:
"The City of Richmond Department of Public Utilities (DPU) is committed to transparency about our current state and our efforts to normalize operations in a post-covid environment. DPU will continue to keep customers apprised of our progress as customer service levels improve."
This is the FOIA request CBS 6 submitted to DPU:
"I am requesting documents showing all current logs of customer billing issue cases as of the date the request was made 7/3/23. So, all cases that are still pending resolution, any billing issue to include estimated bills, move-ins/move-outs, and any other billing issue."
This is the response from DPU, provided on August 8.
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