AUSTIN (KXAN) — One day after Austin Energy apologized for an error in their meter readings, Austinites are expressing distrust in the billing system and in the consistency of meter readings on their property.
Wednesday, Austin Energy made a public apology for the problem which resulted in under-billing for customers in September of 2017 and over-billing in August of 2017. In total, the city of Austin expects to credit $138,000 back to citizens. There are more than 7,000 residents along 135 meter reading routes who may have been impacted.
Jennifer Mack, who lives in east Austin off of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, believes her meter hasn’t been read in months. She rents out her place from landlords who also live on the property, she only started to notice problems this summer.
“When [the water bill] started getting really high they started asking us questions — ‘Are you guys using lots of water?’ ‘What’s going on, do we have a leak?'” Mack recalled. In fact, Mack and her husband were actively trying to conserve water, and after their bills rose, they stopped using water altogether to see if it made a difference. It didn’t. At that time their water bill was close to $1,000, Mack said.
That’s when Mack went to check out the water meter herself in August and found it caked in a thick layer of dirt and grass. Once she pulled off the grate she had to spend a while cleaning the meter to even get close to seeing the numbers. Mack doesn’t believe the grate had even been opened since she checked it last in August.
Mack said her water bill fluctuated between August and September and believes she was one of the customers impacted by the billing error.
“I think there’s a lot of work that Austin Energy needs to do to build back the community’s trust,” Mack said, noting that many of her neighbors shared on the Nextdoor app they’d experienced similar billing problems.
“My landlords are elderly, they’re over 80 years old and so they’re calling and saying this water bill is outrageous, this is too high, and no one is listening to them. Thankfully they had the resources to pay for it,” Mack said. “My concern is for the low income, and the elderly and disabled, people with children who could possibly have no water because their bill is not being read correctly, their meter is not being read.”
“I’m pretty confident their meters are being read based on the quality checks that we’re doing, I even have people checking on the people who are doing quality checks,” explained Timothy Davis, the director of Revenue Measurement and Control for Austin Energy.
He said he understands customers’ concerns but noted that as of Jan. 29, meter readers are now expected to take photos of meters after each reading.
“Even after the guy cleans [the meter] out, there will be rain and the dirt will come back,” said Davis, who read meters himself for five years. Davis added that dirt is often the least of the worries meter readers face. He’s known some readers who’ve come across bees and snakes on top of the spot where they’re supposed to access the meter.
He explained that meter readers have a number of tools supplied by their employers they can use to get to meters, which are in the ground and often covered in dirt.
Davis acknowledged it’s not the customer’s job to keep meter’s clean (though it doesn’t hurt if they help out), the meters are city property. He added that customers can help out by making sure that dogs, cars or locked gates won’t get in the way of reading meters on their property
Meter readers are employed by the company Bermex and contracted out by the city. In fact, the city changed meter reading contracts in August of 2017, switching from Corix Utilities to Bermex.
If a water meter is damaged the meter readers will make a note to Austin water to have it replaced, Davis said.
Other people reached out to KXAN expressing doubts that their water meters are read monthly. Kaylee Perkins believes she was one of the people impacted by the error over the summer and fall when she received a bill for $600 one month.
“Only two people live in our home, it’s a new home so I knew there wasn’t a leak or anything like that and our home is energy efficient,” Perkins explained. “And we went to check our meter and it was covered in an ant pile and so I knew it hadn’t been checked, the meter hadn’t been checked and I had been charged an exorbitant amount.”
Joe Ditta, a handyman in Austin, has seen similar things. In the last two years, he estimates he’s turned 250 meters off and at least 15 or 20 were completely buried, roughly another 20 were obscured. “There’s no way these meters are being read with the regularity they should be,” Ditta said.
He thinks customers should be on the lookout for whether their meters are buried or readable if they get an especially high water bill. He’s seen meters in Austin that appear to not have been read in months, if not years because they are so covered in dirt.
“If it’s not readable they should figure out why they got such a high bill,” he said.
How to read your water meter
According to information on the city of Austin website, you’ve got to find the meter on your property, turn off your water on your property, find the actual face of the meter (it’s covered under a grate), take a meter reading of the numbers on the face of the meter, and check again after half an hour. The city says that if you notice the dial continues to move and the reading changes, you may have a leak.
Timothy Davis with Austin Energy recommends snapping a photo of your meter if you have concerns it’s not working properly or being read. They want to hear from customers who have these worries, and say it helps to have a photo of the meter and a date the photo was taken to work with.