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Zimmerman water resolution not legal

Thursday, October 22, 2015 by Jo Clifton

City Council Member Don Zimmerman has failed in his attempt to give water utility money back to some of the customers who used the most water and had the highest bills during August. Zimmerman had proposed directing the city manager to compare residential and multifamily monthly usage for this year to monthly usage for 2014 and to give refunds to those customers whose usage was more than 200 percent of their 2014 usage.

But the city’s rate structure is specifically designed to discourage high usage, and Zimmerman’s proposal would have ignored that rate structure, which has the force of law.

The city’s Law Department addressed Zimmerman’s resolution in writing, noting that “it would be unlawful to retroactively adjust rates … or otherwise reduce the debt for services rendered.”

The memo, from Assistant City Attorney Andy Perny, was posted on the City Council Message Board, and Council Member Delia Garza, who chairs the Council Public Utilities Committee, discussed it briefly during Wednesday’s meeting. That was the only mention of the Zimmerman resolution after a lengthy discussion and airing of grievances from people from Greenslopes and the Lost Creek municipal utility district.

The committee did vote unanimously to ask Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros to return to the committee next month with ideas for how the utility can hire an outside consultant to audit its meters and the meter reading process.

Meszaros had just explained to the committee that Austin Energy, which handles billing for the utilities, was in the process of carrying out a request for quotations for an audit of Austin Water bills. The RFQ closes on Friday, and Meszaros said that the audit should be available for weeks after the contract is let. However, the audit will not address the questions many customers have about whether they are actually using as much water as they are being billed for.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair said she was frustrated because the issues that will be covered in the audit “are not responsive to the things we’ve heard in the committee.” She made the motion to ask Meszaros to come back next month with information about an audit of the meters and how to address bills that suddenly spike during a particular month.

As noted in a memo from City Manager Marc Ott in September and reiterated Wednesday, Austin Energy conducted a review of meter reads in May and June of this year. The review shows that “97.5 percent of the reviewed meter reads were accurate and appropriately obtained by the vendor.”

A review of water pumpage for the summer months of each year starting in 2011 shows that more water is pumped in August of each year than any other month. More water was used last August than any other month since August 2011, according to city data. Austin Water records show that 5.2 billion gallons were pumped in August, the highest amount since 6.3 billion gallons were pumped in August 2011 at the height of the drought.

Meszaros said that Austin Energy has handled more than 2,400 escalations – or detailed inquiries – and Austin Water has handled another 256. Of those, 2,100 are either resolved or closed, he said, and there has been a refund on only 10 of those cases.

According to Meszaros, the utility conducted 144 irrigation audits between August and earlier this month, with an additional 159 audits scheduled through November.

Those audits show that 83 percent of the irrigation systems audited were set to run on multiple days, with multiple start times and/or with excessive run times, Meszaros said.

Water use for irrigation systems with what the utility considers excessive days or run times averaged 384 percent of recommended irrigation levels. Meszaros said the examples included the potential to use 100,000 to 300,000 gallons in one month in some cases.

Vicky Couch of the Greenslopes community told the committee that she was thankful for the work of various people at Austin Water, who finally found a hidden leak in her neighborhood. That does not mean that Greenslopes residents will get a refund on their bills, however, because as Meszaros explained, the lines belong to the community and are on private land. Although Austin Water does not usually help people find such leaks, it did so in this case; however, the Greenslopes customers had to hire their own plumber to fix the problem.

Couch said the community, which receives only one bill per month for all of its residents’ water usage, still has a big problem. It has a water bill for $17,000 that is due in early November.

Asked about the possibility of giving Greenslopes customers a break on the bills, Meszaros was not sure how Austin Water could do that. The utility has a policy for individual homes but not for PUD developments. The utility may be able to give them a refund for their wastewater use, however.

Meszaros said that total metered consumption for August was 88 percent of the amount pumped. Lost Creek residents sitting in the room expressed skepticism toward Meszaros’ statements, some of them calling out comments to contradict him.

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