Holes found in PUC water bill aid program

S.F. Examiner File Photo3 percent of people participating in the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s Customer Assistance Program have a bill of $450 or greater

S.F. Examiner File Photo3 percent of people participating in the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s Customer Assistance Program have a bill of $450 or greater

A city program designed to provide low-income residents with discounts on their water bills is a comprehensive mess, according to a new audit by the City Controller’s Office.

The report, released Tuesday, found failures in almost every aspect of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s Customer Assistance Program. Critical problems were identified with the program’s implementation, maintenance and users — including potentially more than 500 city employees, most of whom don’t come close to meeting low-income thresholds.

Nearly a quarter of the total $2 million in annual assistance provided was spent on dubious sources, including households that received the discounts and somehow used $450 per month in water, whereas an average bill in The City is $55. City Controller’s Office auditors found that $310,000 in discounts were spent on such households, although the exact reason for their high water usage was undetermined.

“While it is possible that some customers simply use an excessive amount of water, in these cases substantial water waste might also be occurring due to leaks, inefficient appliances, or customer negligence,” the audit says. “Other potential causes are that SFPUC has incorrect data for household size, or that, to meet the program’s income guidelines, customers are not reporting all household members with income.”

An additional $163,000 of the $2 million was spent on 473 accounts that matched the addresses of 537 city employees, who earn an average salary of $93,000, more than twice the amount that would qualify a family of four for the discounts.

“While some city employees may be recent hires and may not have earned the total amount of the salary indicated for their job classification in the year in question, the total earnings of each city employee in a given fiscal year is available to SFPUC, which can use this data to verify CAP eligibility,” the audit says.

The audit also found that the agency sent out forms asking residents to report their incomes and the number of people living in their households, but that program participants were not required to back up their assertions with documents, such as federal tax returns.

The SFPUC, which originally requested the audit of the program, has concurred with the vast majority of the City Controller’s Office recommendations, which include sending out eligibility verification  forms every two years, removing the discounts on accounts that do not respond to such queries and developing a system for “handling customers who violate program rules.” The audit also recommends that the agency increase participation rates in low-income areas that could legitimately benefit from the program, which is funded solely by ratepayer funds.

Since its inception in 2005, the program’s cost has grown from $600,000 to $2 million a year, spurred by a rise in the same period of 900 to 7,400 users.

dschreiber@sfexaminer.com

Bay Area NewsController’s OfficeLocalSan Francisco Public Utilities Commission

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