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High water bills remain a puzzle (or maybe not)

Thursday, September 17, 2015 by Jo Clifton

Although various citizens complained to the Council Public Utilities Committee on Wednesday about their high water bills and the trouble those bills were causing them, there was no aha! moment during which the source of the puzzlingly high water usage was revealed.

Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros did explain that water bills spike nearly every August and that many customers are experiencing the water utility’s block rate system, which charges ever-increasing prices as usage goes up.

Matt Worthington of the Greenslopes Planned Unit Development told the committee members that he and his neighbors, the owners of 113 town homes in the development, have noticed “massive increases” in their utility bills. The PUD has just one meter for all of the homes, and the homeowners association is responsible for paying the bills. That means all of the residents have a big problem, he explained. Because they have been unable to pay, he said, they now face the possibility of having their water cut off.

Worthington said the spikes do not always occur in the summer. He showed a chart that indicated water usage had jumped in December, February, March and April.

Another Greenslopes resident, Richard Haas, said that the bill for the homeowners had jumped from about $5,000-$6,000 a month to about $15,000-$16,000 a month. He acknowledged that it might be better to have submetering so that each family is responsible for its own water bill, but that won’t solve the current problem. He did say that the homeowners association is setting up a payment plan with the utility.

Homeowners from two former municipal utility districts, Lost Creek and River Place, also reported significant and startling jumps in their usage and their bills. Lost Creek and River Place were added to the city’s water and wastewater system within the last year.

Madeleine Connor of the Lost Creek Neighborhood Association said she was being billed for four to six times the amount she previously used. Generally, she said she uses about 12,000 gallons per month, but recently her bill spiked to 40,000 gallons in one month.

Meszaros told the committee that the water utility and Austin Energy had formed a response team, authorized overtime and shifted staff in an effort to resolve questions about water usage and billing. He said they had investigated hundreds of customer accounts in order to try to resolve problems.

He used River Place as an example, explaining that the utility believes those customers had indeed used all the water they have been billed for. He produced historical data showing that water usage spiked in August during 2012, 2013, 2014 and this year. The major difference was how low water usage was in May and June this year because of wet weather. In June, he said, the River Place water treatment plant produced 15.8 million gallons, and in July that number rose to 33 million gallons. In August, the same plant produced 40.5 million gallons of water.

River Place residents generally use considerably more water than customers in the rest of the city. Meszaros said they use 354 gallons per person per day, while the average usage for the city as a whole is 79 gallons per person per day.

When River Place was a MUD, the price of water did not reach $7 per 1,000 gallons until 30,000 gallons was used, and then it remained at $7 per 1,000 gallons no matter how much was used, according to a memo Meszaros sent to the mayor and City Council this week.

“In contrast,” Meszaros wrote, “Austin Water’s rates rise to $7.29 per 1,000 gallons for volumes between 6,001 gallons and 11,000 gallons. Austin Water’s rates continue to rise with the level of usage, reaching $13.93 per 1,000 gallons for usage of about 20,000 gallons.”

Meszaros noted that in July, 67 percent of Austin Water’s residential customers used less than 6,000 gallons per month, “while 68 percent of River Place customers consumed more than 6,000 gallons per month” and 13 percent of them used more than 20,000 gallons, compared to less than 3 percent of the city as a whole.

Nevertheless, Meszaros promised that he and the staff of both utilities would continue to look for potential errors and try to help people.

In his memo, Meszaros said, “Austin Water specifically reviewed several customers’ bills within the River Place MUD, recalculating each bill to ensure system accuracy. As a result, each bill reviewed for this area was determined to have been accurately generated by the city’s billing system.

“After reviewing some customer concerns in this area, some leaks have been found on (customer) properties. These leaks can contribute significantly to increased water usage.”

Meszaros noted that other local governments have had similar issues, including Cedar Park and Round Rock, as well as some cities in North Texas.

At the end of the meeting, Council Member Delia Garza, who chairs the committee, asked Meszaros to return next month with more information. She said, “When you get 150 calls in a week about an issue, this is something that is not going to quickly go away.”

Photo by Man (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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