LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The Los Angeles City Council today ordered a halt on  utility shutoff notices until the Department of Water and Power fixes  inaccurate and late billing problems in its $162 million customer information  system, which went online in September.

The council voted 12-0 to place a moratorium on disconnection notices.  DWP officials estimate about 70,000 of the utility's 1.4 million customers have  received late bills or been charged inaccurate utility fees since the system  was put into use.

The motion, introduced by Councilman Mitchell Englander, also requires  the DWP to provide an update every 30 days on steps taken to remedy the billing  issues.

The utility on Tuesday implemented a virtual hold phone system that  allows customers to hang up after five minutes of waiting for a DWP customer  service representative to pick up, and receive a call back.

DWP officials on Monday also moved to halt the issuance of shutoff  notices and disconnection activity.

DWP General Manager Ron Nichols told the council that despite ``numerous  dress rehearsals'' prior to the system rollout, problems were inevitable. He  said the complexity of the transition from an antiquated, 39-year-old system to  the new system meant that meter information was unavailable for many customers.

``All utilities estimate bills when they can't read a meter,'' he said.  ``We've had a higher number of them because of the changeover.''

Englander, who dubbed the rollout problems ``billing-gate,'' told  Nichols that he was ``not comforted in hearing all the excuses with where we're  at.''

Englander shared ``nightmare stories'' from ``families, seniors on fixed  incomes,'' who said they were put on hold for 10 hours, and whose bank  accounts were ``instantly pillaged'' when incorrect bill amounts were  automatically drawn out.

Councilman Mitch O'Farrell said he has received complaints from  customers who said they owed $40 but were charged more than $1,700.

He urged the DWP to take greater care with its customers, especially  with families preparing to cook Thanksgiving meals.

Councilman Paul Krekorian criticized DWP officials for not giving the  public enough notice about expected hiccups in the rollout, such as the  ``wildly varying estimated bills.''

Because of prolonged customer service wait times -- over the phone and  at physical service centers -- customers ``couldn't reach a human being to  resolve what was clearly incorrect,'' he said.

``We have some work to do,'' said DWP Assistant General Manager of  Customer Relations Sharon Groves, who added that the utility will now manually  examine any bill of more than $100 to check for accuracy.

Groves admitted that DWP officials ``underestimated'' the number of  customer service representatives they needed in the aftermath of the rollout,  and have responded by increasing customer service staffing.

The average service call wait time has also climbed to 40 minutes, up  from the usual 10-15 minutes, because customers were calling in to dispute  inaccurate bills, utility officials said last week.