AUSTIN (KXAN) — More than 7,000 city of Austin utility customers will receive credits on their water bills after the city determined the anomalies associated with their summer water bill were due to incorrect meter readings.
After the customers received bills for August and September 2017 usage, the city says it received hundreds of questions from people about the abnormally high bill in September. The city determined the usage in August was abnormally low, but then “overly concentrated” in September. The city’s investigation revealed the incorrect meter reads happened during the time the city was transitioning between two vendors that read city water meters. The September reads were read by the new vendor, Bermex, while the August reads were done by Corix Utilities.
The city believes approximately 7,400 customers were impacted by the misreads and were charged more for the two-month period than if their use had been equally spread across the months. The investigation also revealed the misreads were clustered on 135 of 1,080 meter-reading routes. Another 700 customers who had significantly higher September bills compared to previous years may qualify for an additional High Bill Administrative Adjustment if their usage can’t be explained or was unintended.
The customers who were affected will receive a credit on their bill, with the credit averaging $20 and not exceeding $80 in most instances. The city says the total credit due to the misreads will cost the city around $138,000. Customers should expect credits to be applied by mid-March.
“We should have found this faster and we should have found it ourselves. We should have had better safeguards against unreasonable water meter reads,” said Jackie Sargent, general manager of Austin Energy. “We apologize to those affected by this anomaly and we hold ourselves accountable for improving our processes so that they do not recur. Customers must have confidence that their utility bills are measured and billed accurately.”
To prevent incorrect meter reads, the city says it is now requiring meter readers to take photographs of each meter read. While this process will take more time and money, the city says “it is necessary to create a visual record of each meter read.” Austin Energy’s deputy general manager Kerry Overton explained during a Wednesday news conference the photograph is crucial since it’ll also give the department the meter reader’s GPS positioning.
When KXAN asked at the news conference whether or not any meter readers will be disciplined for incorrect readings or any additional training will be conducted, Overton says they’re working the vendors to determine what actually happened with those reads and they’re continuing to analyze the data and how the information was uploaded as well as quality control checks.
“We’re not completely sure how it happened and our job is to build a system that’s so crystal clear that it won’t happen again,” said Robert Cullick with Austin Energy. He explained that it is impossible to tell if the problems came from human error or technical problems.
The Customer Is Always Right
One of the customers pushing the city of Austin on this matter is O.T. Greer who lives in a neighborhood just west of North Lamar Boulevard in between Braker Lane and Rundberg Lane. Greer noticed his August bill was low ($21) and his September bill was high ($214). His neighbors saw similar patterns, so they organized and began asking the city for answers.
“So that’s how things have been going and we’ve been getting calls from city people saying, ‘Well you’ve probably got a leak somewhere, get your area checked, get a plumber and check’ and I said, I know I don’t have no leak,” Greer said.
“Up until this news release, [the city departments] haven’t admitted anything, they’ve said on two or three occasions, ‘we don’t know what happened so we’re not going to be responsible for spiked bills,'” Greer said.
According to his calculations, the city owes him $53.57. “I wasn’t that concerned that much about the money, it’s the principle that I know it happened to a bunch of people, something is wrong somewhere.”
People like Greer have been contacting Austin City Council Member Ellen Troxclair, even though she represents District 8, she’s asked for residents from all over Austin to let her know if they see discrepancies on their utility bills.
“So this isn’t surprising to me but I am so glad that Austin Water has come to a point where they have found a problem and they’ve admitted that there was an issue and they’re going to address it,” Troxclair said.
“Audits have found that we have had issues with meter reading and of course there’s human error,” Troxclair said, noting that the ongoing issues have made it difficult for citizens to trust that their bills are accurate.
She hopes the city implements continual audits to make sure they stay on track. Troxclair noted she has a resolution on the council agenda for Thursday that would put in place affordability metrics for Austin Water. “Utility bills are such a huge part of every person’s monthly budget, whether you’re a family, a business, a homeowner or a renter and it’s critical that we have assurances in place that rates are going to stay reasonable over the long term,” Troxclair said.
Years of Complaints
While this recent development only addresses this past summer’s billing irregularities, Austin Energy has been fielding complaints about inaccurate billing for the past several years.In early 2014, a KXAN Investigation uncovered 550 customers were overbilled in 2012 due to incorrect meter reads. In 2001 the city of Austin started a partnership with Corix Utilities to read its meters.
In the summer of 2015, KXAN did multiple reports on customers who reported high water bills that couldn’t be explained. At the time, Austin Energy told KXAN there wasn’t a widespread billing issue and that its billing system was 98 percent accurate. Austin Energy noted these meter reader problems have “nothing to do with” the weather conditions that caused utility problems in 2015.
In 2016, Council Member Ellen Troxclair pushed for and got a resolution passed to give utility customers a way to dispute an abnormally high water bill (High Bill Administrative Adjustment). In the same year, the city decided to spend $80 million on smart meters that would replace all the manual-read water meters across the city. Before making the decision to move forward with the smart meters, the city tested the meters in the River Place neighborhood.Editor’s Note: Austin Energy said customers will receive credits on their water bill, not a refund. The story has been changed to reflect that.