Last year, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa asked me to become the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The DWP had just been through a controversial rate increase and it was clear new leadership would be needed to reestablish the DWP’s credibility within City Hall and even more importantly with its customers – all of us in Los Angeles who pay the bills. I agreed to assume this role on an interim basis until we could find the right long-term leader for the department.
I stated publicly my goals when I started – to increase the transparency and accountability of the department, cut costs and redeploy assets to reduce the burden on residential and business customers. While the DWP still has much work to do in these areas, it has made real progress in the last many months:
• A comprehensive effort began to increase communication with our customers. We held dozens of meetings throughout the city with various community groups, and for the first time, presented a budget and long-term strategic plan in plain English. We also shared this information with the City Council and the media, and posted the plans and presentations on the DWP’s website.
• The department cut costs. In my first 30 days, we cut more than $250 million from spending plans, which allowed the DWP to avoid further rate increases. We also started several initiatives to increase operating efficiency, which will help lessen the need for future rate increases.
• We found a way to pay for much needed repair and replacement of infrastructure, which had been underinvested in historically. An example of this is an agreement with Oracle to replace the DWP’s ancient computer information system. This new system will allow the department to manage a smart grid, and to better inform customers of their power and water usage. At last, we’ll all get timely bills that explain what things cost and where the money is being spent.
• We continued to invest in making the DWP environmentally responsible. Los Angeles is the first major city in this country with 20 percent of its energy coming from renewable energy sources. The DWP must continue to make progress in this area while doing it in a way that is affordable to customers.
• Most importantly, we hired a general manager with deep experience in the utility industry. Sounds obvious, but that has not been the case at the DWP for a long while. We conducted a nationwide search and contacted more than 250 candidates before selecting Ron Nichols. I’m pleased to pass the baton to someone as capable as him.
The department has been roundly criticized, and some of it was justified. But please consider that Los Angeles recently experienced its hottest day ever and its wettest week ever. Through it all, the lights worked and the water flowed – and our rates at the DWP remain lower than our surrounding communities. I’m thankful to the hardworking men and women at the DWP who helped make this happen.
The DWP has many challenges it will have to address in the coming months and years, including the continued work of reestablishing its credibility in the community. It has started in the right direction and I’m confident Nichols, working with the mayor, City Council and DWP employees, will take the necessary steps to ensure the next generation of Angelenos will have safe, reliable and affordable power and water.
Austin Beutner is the first deputy mayor of Los Angeles and served as interim general manager of DWP for the past eight months.
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