Seattle City Light in the spotlight today

There are two notable items of news related to Seattle City Light today: an audit of its billing practices, and more details on the Mayor’s nominee for the utility’s CEO position.

Council member Mosqueda requests audit of SCL’s billing and customer service practices

Council member Teresa Mosqueda announced today that last month she formally requested the City Auditor’s Office to audit the billing and customer service practices of Seattle City Light. In particular, she asked the Auditor to investigate six areas:

  1. City Light processes to prevent erroneous or unanticipated catch up bills to customers, including whether they are automated and how they work in practice;
  2. Processes to identify and help ensure the accuracy of catch up bills that result from estimated billing;
  3. Communications with customers about estimated billing and catch up bills;
  4. Processes for resolving customer complaints and appeals;
  5. Existing policies to make reasonable accommodations for customers who receive bills that deviate from what they anticipated, including what payment options are available; and
  6. The process for reimbursement when customers have been overcharged.

In her press release, Mosqueda said that her office had received numerous complaints about SCL “overbilling customers while it implements its new advanced metering system, errors caused by estimated billing practices.” She has also asked the Auditor to provide recommendations on how the utility can address billing issues, improve customer communications related to billing, and arrange payment accommodations for customers receiving unexpected large bills.

Seattle City Light spokesperson Scott Thomsen provided the following statement in response to Mosqueda’s announcement:

We have been in communication with the City Council about Councilmember Mosqueda’s request and we are working with the City of Seattle auditor to support the review.

We experienced a surge of estimated bills in late 2017 and into early 2018 related to the return of University of Washington students and dramatic population growth while we were not able to increase staffing sufficiently to process all the account moves. Additionally, there have been times when locks have been changed on meter rooms in multifamily buildings and our meter readers have not been able to access them; meter readers were not able to complete a route; gates were locked; or dogs were left out in the yard. Situations like that also will force an estimate for the reading. Once we do get an actual read, it will show whether our estimate was low or high. If we were too high, the next bill could be very small or have a credit. If our estimate was low, the next bill will account for all the electricity that was used but not paid for in previous billing cycles as well the current billing cycle’s usage.

Advanced Metering has not caused any erroneous bills. In some instances, City Light gained access to a previously locked meter room when our contractor, Aclara, made arrangements to install the new meters. Having the new meters in place will eliminate most estimated reads because the meters will send the energy usage information directly to City Light. We won’t need to send a person to manually read the meter.

Mosqueda, a high-profile labor advocate, concluded her letter to the Auditor by taking a swipe at SCL’s management:

I believe that the people who work for Seattle City Light are doing the best that they can with the tools provided. The dedication of these public servants is often overlooked when these types of errors occur. 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.
This issue came up during the Strategic Plan discussions, wherein we learned that many processes are knowledge-based, and there is a reliance on individuals with experience, rather than clear guidelines on paper. With an aging workforce, this is a disservice to customers, and a disservice to the workers expected to take on roles when people retire. I remain concerned that there has been an abdication of responsibility by management to ensure that there are clearly defined and written practices and procedures. This extends beyond the issue at bar, and is something we have seen with respect to workplace culture and harassment, as well.

There is no timeframe set (yet) for completion of the audit.

SCL CEO nominee Debra Smith offered $340,000 starting salary

In advance of Thursday’s first City Council hearing on the confirmation of Debra Smith as Seattle City Light’s new CEO, the city has published the packet of information that the Mayor’s Office transmitted to the Council on the candidate. Among the materials is the offer letter from the city, stating that her starting salary would be $340,000. That is the same starting salary that her predecessor, Larry Weis, received. Like Weis, it would make Smith the highest-paid city employee.

Council member Kshama Sawant has frequently criticized the SCL CEO pay as excessive, and is likely to raise that as a concern again.

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office provided the following statement on the proposed salary:

Debra Smith’s salary is the same starting salary as the last nominee for this role. The salary range for positions in the City is set and approved by Seattle City Council. In the case of the CEO/GM role for Seattle City Light, the salary range must be competitive with similar roles around the country.

Smith will meet the City Council at 2pm on Thursday afternoon. Her answers to a questionnaire from the Council are expected to be posted in advance of the hearing.