AUSTIN (KXAN) – Austin Energy customers using the city’s “Digital Self Service” system to pay their utility bill online may have run into website malfunctions this past fall and winter. City records reveal the payment system failed intermittently for four months – from September through mid-January – sporadically hampering an unknown number of customers trying to settle their utility accounts.
During the timeframe of the website malfunction, the city also took in hundreds of thousands of dollars each month in late payment fees, according to records obtained by KXAN through the Texas Public Information Act. It is possible some customers who faced payment website malfunctions were also hit with late fees, but it isn’t clear how many because the city said it didn’t track that data.
A spokesperson for Austin Energy, which handles utility billing, said they would waive the late fee for customers who felt they couldn’t pay because of the website glitch.
One customer – Jessica H. – told KXAN she ran into problems “every single time” she tried to reconcile her utility bill online for months. She tried to pay on different devices at different times of the day, but nothing worked. Jessica said customer service workers with the utility acknowledged the website had problems, and there was also a banner on the payment site for a period indicating it was having glitches.
“The only way I was ever able to get (a payment) to go through was to delete my payment information, re-add it and then submit again,” said Jessica, who asked that KXAN not use her last name due to safety and privacy concerns. Jessica did share her computer screen during a video Zoom call with KXAN to verify her utility account and information.
Jessica said she ultimately paid her bill by phone, and incurred an additional fee to use that service. An Austin Energy spokesperson acknowledged a vendor, not Austin Energy, handles phone payments does charge an additional processing fee.
KXAN obtained a record of all the outages and malfunctions on the Digital Self Service payment site for the two-year period ending in February. There were nearly two dozen in that timeframe. Some of the issues lasted minutes, many lasted hours and a few lasted days. The four-month-long intermittent payment glitch was the longest-lasting issue, according to the city’s record of malfunctions provided to KXAN.
It isn’t clear exactly how many customers were unable to pay online because of the website issue. Austin Energy said there are numerous ways customers can pay their bills, such as paying in person, pay stations, online banking, auto drafting, bank wires, by phone and by mail. The utility described the malfunction as a “time-out error” that caused payment failures.
“Due to when the time-out error occurred, there is no reporting to reflect how many customers were potentially impacted,” according to an Austin Energy statement. “The Utility Contact Center was informed about what was happening and that we would waive late fees if a customer stated they had tried to make a payment through DSS and could not.”
The utility said it has tracked payment method trends, which show there wasn’t a widespread online payment blockage caused by the malfunction. Digital Self Service payments comprise 18 to 20% of all monthly utility payments, on average. During the timeframe of the glitch, online payments remained consistent, and about 19% of utility payments were done online, according to Austin Energy.
That validates “there were no large-scale issues with customers making payments through that channel,” Austin Energy said. The city also said it did not see an increase in call volumes while there were online payment issues.
Jessica said she hoped the city didn’t receive late payment fees from customers because they couldn’t pay online.
It would be “infuriating” if the city was “putting money in their pocket because of something that was broken on their end,” she said. Especially for “people like myself barely keeping our heads above water.”
Fees add up
In October, November and December of 2022 – while the Digital Self Service payment system was malfunctioning – the city took in over $1.3 million in late fees, according to city data.
Over a recent three-year period, from January 2020 through the end of 2022, the city received $9.6 million in electric late payment fees, including refunds. In aggregate, electric late payment fees far outweigh other fees, like the non-sufficient funds fee, meter tampering fee and broken seal fee, according to utility records.
The electric late payment fee fluctuates significantly from month to month. In some months the city collected over $500,000. In other months, the total collection amount has gone negative. The late payment fee is calculated by taking 5% of metered services, which are electric, water and wastewater, according to a utility guide.
“COA Utilities proactively pauses late fees periodically due to unforeseen or major circumstances, like the pandemic and extreme weather events,” Austin Energy said in a statement.
The utility said there are seasonal impacts that affect the amount of late fees it assesses.
“Utility balances tend to be higher in the summer due to increased electric and water consumption, and we see the impact with an increase in late fees and collection activities related to unpaid balances,” Austin Energy said.
Utility customers have 17 days to pay their utility bill and then there’s a grace period for all payment types. The grace period was extended to any customer that may have been impacted by the website malfunction, according to the utility.
“If any customer feels they were assessed a late fee because of the issue on that one payment method, we are happy to waive it,” Austin Energy said.
Contact information for Austin Energy’s utility customer service is available here.