Williamson County homeowners fight ‘outrageous’ water bills

Investigations

JARRELL, Texas (KXAN) — Matthew Martinez has checked his water meter countless times since early November.

Matthew Martinez’s water meter in the growing Sonterra MUD district. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

He’s made the walk across the front yard to not only check on his water usage but also documented it with pictures after a recent high bill.

“I received a bill from Crossroads Utility Services stating I had used 24,000 gallons of water,” explained Martinez who has lived at the home for about a year. “I was like, what the heck.”

He said he lives alone and usually averages anywhere from four to five thousand gallons a month — which means his bill is between $120 to $125. But in October, he says his bill from Crossroads Utility Services was twice as high: nearly $240.

“I immediately emailed them and they provided me a picture of what supposedly is my water meter and advised me the best they can do is provide me with pamphlets on how to watch my water consumption,” Martinez said. “I went outside and checked my meter and the meter they sent me wasn’t even mine!”

Martinez explained that he immediately sent the utility a picture of his meter. He said at that point, a customer service representative asked for additional photos.

“I kept having to come outside, you know, take more pictures of, you know, different angles of the water meter. And still they did not want to change the bill,” Martinez said. “I don’t have an irrigation system. So, and then they told me, you know… ‘Turn off the water, and then check the meter.’ You know, all these different steps, when I’ve already showed them that this is wrong.”

Other homeowners looking for answers

Martinez lives in the growing Sonterra MUD district.

He shared his frustrations on his community’s Facebook page and said neighbors immediately started posting about their higher bills. KXAN investigators heard from seven homeowner dealing with similar concerns including Kayode Ojetola.

“I was sent a water bill of $254.10 in September for the month of August stating we had used 40,000 gallons of water,” said Ojetola to KXAN investigators. “We were diligent to investigate any water leak in which there was none and my sprinkler system is now on manual watering (once per week).”

Homeowners in the Sonterra neighborhood said they don’t understand their higher water bills. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

He explained that he wants to understand how two adults and a 3-year-old child can use so much water with no pets or a swimming pool.

He shared his bills with KXAN investigators — which show one month their water usage is reported at 40,000 gallons and the next only 5,000. He explained that the difference is more than $200.

“So I was wondering, where did 40,000 gallons come from? I gave them a call. I was given the runaround, ‘Hey, maybe something is leaking?’ I said no, I’ve paid attention. I’ve investigated nothing is leaking,” explained Ojetola who moved into the home in April.

Other homeowners have similar questions.

“I live alone and I’m just really puzzled by the water usage history. There is a 2,000 gallon jump from August to September. I have not changed any of my habits nor my watering schedule,” said the homeowner in an email to KXAN.

Meters misread

Crossroads Utility Services explained that 3,788 water meters are read in person and entered manually in the Sonterra neighborhood every month.

“We had a few complaints about high usage. And so we went through a process of looking into that internally, and discovered that there were a couple of meters that were misread,” explained Andrew Hunt, COO of Crossroads Utility Services. 

After the complaints about high water bills, Hunt said meter technicians went back out to the neighborhood and flagged 56 homes to have high abnormal usage. Hunt explained out of those, 11 were misread.

“We looked, and we just didn’t find a larger scale problem. And so we think it was it was isolated,” Hunt said. “We have no reason to believe that there was any issue wide scale, but just that some of these customers that had abnormal usage, it was an error that we caused.”

Crossroads Utility Services reads 3,788 water meters in person in the Sonterra neighborhood every month. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

He explained that afterwards, an additional crew checked a random set of meters which the billing department selected and they found 100% accuracy.

“We don’t believe that there’s any systemic issue with the meter readings,” Hunt said. “And the best thing to do is to reach out to us… every house has different number of people, different number, a different pattern of usage, and it’s best that we look at that individually.”

He encouraged customers to contact the utility if something looks abnormal and if there’s been a spike in usage. 

“Our goal is that you understand that, that usage on that that bill,” Hunt said. “We do have a way of looking into our system to see when that meter was read, our meter reading department does timestamps on every meter reading that they provide.”

Hunt also explained that they are in the process of installing smart meters for the subdivision over the next two years. It will allow crews to read meters remotely and customers to view their usage on an hourly basis.

“We have hundreds of meters in the ground in the newer part of the community where we have builders actively building homes. We have those meters now being installed. And we plan over the next two years to get the remaining 3,800 converted over to smart meters,” said Hunt.

Public Utility Commission of Texas responds

The utility re-read Martinez’s meter. He said his bill ended up being $115 and he was refunded. 

“It’s just outrageous the process that you have to go through to get get them out to fix their error,” said Martinez. “I just didn’t expect it to be this hard to get my bill corrected on something that’s their error, especially after showing them all those pictures.”

Martinez filed a complaint with the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC) and shared the response with KXAN investigators.

“Please know that state law gives the PUC limited jurisdiction over Municipal Utility Districts; therefore, CPD (Customer Protection Division) is unable to investigate your complaint. Utility Districts are run by a publicly elected Board of Directors who manages and controls all the affairs of the district,” said the letter to Martinez.

Sonterra MUD, Board of Directors, was updated on concerns about higher water bills at recent regular meeting. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

Additionally, the letter explained that, “Customer of publicly owned utilities such as water districts have a voice in the decisions made regarding their utility by exercising their right to elect the board of directors that represents their constituents’ interests.”

KXAN investigators tried to reach Sonterra MUD’s Board of Directors, but the attorney for the MUD sent our request for a statement to the utility.

“The Board feels that it’s best that Crossroads answer questions about water usage with residents directly. The Board can be addressed by residents at its monthly board meetings. The last regular MUD meeting was last Monday. There were no residents in attendance to discuss this issue,” explained Hunt. 

He said a Crossroads representative was present at that meeting on November 15 and relayed information about complaints. 

“Crossroads has the hands-on knowledge of the water system and is the best party to directly discuss any specific issues,” Hunt explained. 

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