AUSTIN (KXAN) — A city council member is calling for more transparency and accountability, just one day after Austin Energy and Austin Water apologized for incorrectly billing more than 7,000 customers on their water bill.
Council Member Ellen Troxclair wants the city to set benchmarks for all city utilities to stay affordable. It was back in 2010 that the Austin City Council adopted affordability goals for Austin Energy, to keep rates in the lowest half of Texas utilities and to limit annual rate increases. But that never happened for Austin Resource Recovery, the trash service, or Austin Water.
Troxclair is now calling on the city manager to conduct a comprehensive study of public and private water and solid waste utilities in Texas, to see how Austin stacks up. She says affordability is at the center of nearly every council conversation, but the reality is, she says they don’t have the metrics or context they need to make informed decisions on water rates.
“I think there have been a series of events that have caused the water utility to lose some trust from customers and I think putting these benchmarks in place will help to regain some of that public trust,” Troxclair said. “Customers in Austin don’t have a choice in their utility providers and so I think that it’s only fair for them to expect some kind of realistic measures of what they can expect in, their rates going forward.”
Austin Energy says it may take them six months to figure out how to compare Austin’s rates to other cities and even longer to study the differences. The reason is because there isn’t a fair comparison.
Austin’s water system is a surface water system, while many other utilities in Texas use underground water aquifers. Surface water usually costs more.
Other costs that could make Austin’s system different include climate changes and moving water up and down hills here in Central Texas. Factors such as whether a utility company uses water softeners could also affect cost.
“To go to San Antonio, they’re a groundwater utility. It wouldn’t be apples to apples to go out and grab their rates and say, ‘hey, let’s try to be like San Antonio.’ I think you’d kind of like, qualify, some of those things,” explained Greg Meszaros, director of Austin Water.