NewsChannel5 investigation calls for tighter scrutiny on Cleveland water dept. customer service

Water service department called to NewsChannel5

CLEVELAND - Thousands of consumer complaints have flooded water department customer service representatives in Cleveland over the past year.

Dozens of those complaints were sent directly to NewsChannel5 by phone or through newsnet5.com.

Consumers sharing their horror stories about water bills they said are 10 to 20 times higher than their normal bill. Some consumers claimed they didn't even receive a water bill for more than a year.

In response, 5 On Your Side conducted an investigation revealing that 60,000 water bills were either lost or held in limbo for several months, and that more than 16,000 water meters were reported broken or inaccurate last summer.

5 On Your Side took action and traveled to Columbus to ask Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio if they can do anything to help monitor and improve Cleveland water department customer service.

Currently, the Ohio attorney general and the PUCO have no jurisdiction over municipal utilities under Ohio law, but Dewine told 5 On Your Side he is willing to look into changing Ohio law, especially when a municipal utility serves hundreds of thousand of consumers outside its city limits.

"I will talk to members of the state legislature about this," said DeWine. "To see if there is any way we can have more jurisdiction in this area, or some other watchdog."

One other watchdog could be the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which monitors private utility companies here in Ohio.

"We'd wait and see, and be interested in what the Attorney General has in mind," said PUCO Spokesperson Matt Butler. "If it's something the legislature wants to do, we would then create the rules to implement that legislation."

The Ohio Attorney General's Office currently has 31 Cleveland water department complaints on file, and has contacted water department customer service in the search for solutions.

5 On Your Side took even more steps and invited a team of water department customer service experts to NewsChannel5 studios for a live customer service forum, which aired during Live On 5.

NewsChannel5 also invited 40 consumers who sent email to newsnet5.com about their water department billing frustrations.

Consumers received personal one-on-one service during NewsChannel5's live broadcast, as water department customer service representatives used their computers to tap into the department's billing database.

NewsChannel5 also conducted a live chat on newsnet5.com from 5 to 6 p.m. During the chat, 186 consumers received general customer service information and filed their water department complaints.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland City Council Public Utilities Committee is now holding a series of hearings in order to help improve customer service.

"We are working diligently with Mayor Jackson and his directors to turn around customer service," said Utilities Committee Chairman Kevin Kelley. "We need to address the issues raised by our residential and business customers."

NewsChannel5 has received four dozen consumer complaints about the Cleveland Division of Water since last November.

The Cleveland City Council utilities committee has been meeting since March of 2010, working to get the water department to meet a specific set of customer service benchmarks -- benchmarks water department leaders said are being met.

Since July 2010, the Cleveland Division of Water reports customer service wait times have been reduced from 45 minutes to an average of 2 minutes per phone call. The number of broken water meters have been reduced to less than 2,300 and the number of missing, or pending water bills have been reduced to just 493 as of April 15.

5 On Your Side asked utility committee chairman Kevin Kelley some key questions about future improvements in water department customer service.

"We're going to look at every dollar spent in the Cleveland Division of Water, we're going to look at every aspect of the operation," Kelley said.

Consumer now have multiple ways to voice their comments and complaints.

The water department launched a new "one-call" phone system several months ago, and has a series of phone numbers listed on its website at ( http://5.wews.com/Tnm ) that consumers can use to find the customer service help they're looking for.

Water department customers can file their complaints online by filling out a form listed in the "contact us" section of water department website ( http://5.wews.com/Log ).

Consumers are also invited to write letters and send in copies of documentation outlining their customer service problems to: City of Cleveland, Division of Water, P.O Box 94540, Cleveland, Ohio 44101. The water department address and a complete list of payment options can be found at on the water department website ( http://5.wews.com/ny6 ).

The Cleveland Division of Water has even set-up its own Facebook page ( http://5.wews.com/M9a ) where consumers can file their complaints, comments and concerns.

5 On Your Side is committed to keeping you updated on progress

at the Cleveland Division of Water, a utility that serves 1.5 million consumers in 70 Northeast Ohio communities.

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