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Council debates cost, reason for cutting water service for non-payment

Wednesday, September 4, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Council members Tuesday continued exploring costs of disconnecting Austin Energy and Water Utility customers for non-payment of utility bills. Their discussion revealed a just-completed cost-of-service analysis that puts the cost of disconnection and reconnection at just over $70 per ratepayer.


In delving into the issue, Council Member Laura Morrison expressed concern over the city’s practice of disconnecting water service along with electricity. “I’m flabbergasted that we are allowed to turn off somebody’s water,” Morrison said. “We certainly wouldn’t give someone a (certificate of occupancy) to move into a building if there wasn’t water. I can understand with heat, electricity is important, but really, no indoor plumbing? That’s sort of shocking to me.”


The issue has also garnered the attention of veteran Electric Utility Commissioner Shudde Fath. Fath has cast the disconnection of water service as a public health hazard, and noted that it was not always the city’s policy to disconnect water service, even for non-payment.


Should Council decide to address Morrison’s concerns, it could have an effect on the cost associated with disconnection for non-payment. Current utility practice sends live crews out to manually disconnect and reconnect service. Austin Energy Vice President of Customer Care J.J. Gutierrez told Council members Tuesday that the recently finished cost-of-service analysis included the cost of what the utility calls “truck rolls.”


However, Austin Energy is preparing a switch to metered service that will allow utility staff to remotely disconnect and reconnect ratepayer service. Should the city discontinue the policy of disconnecting water service for non-payment, it could remove the only reason to send a crew to a residence for disconnection and reconnection.


According to the cost-of-service analysis, $13 of the reconnection fee is associated with sending a crew to an address. As part of disconnection for non-payment and reconnection, two crews – one for each side of that transaction – are required. That puts the direct cost of truck rolls at $26 per disconnection.


Council members did not directly discuss Tuesday the possibility of changing the water disconnection policy. However, it appeared as though Morrison was angling for that eventuality. “Are you suggesting that – let’s say we’re only doing electric and not water; I understand that we have to send a truck out for the water – that it would still cost us $72 minus $26 to disconnect and reconnect if it was done at the push of the button?” she asked.


Morrison called for a release of more data behind the cost-of-service analysis. “One would think that sending the truck out would be the bigger part of it, and you have to do it twice,” Morrison said. “That gets you to $26. Seventy-two is a whole lot more than $26.”


Gutierrez insisted that the truck roll costs represent a smaller fraction of disconnection and reconnection of service. She promised to share data from the cost-of-service analysis.

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