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Council members react to water meter audit

Thursday, January 21, 2016 by Tyler Whitson

Although Austin Water and Austin Energy staff said at a City Council Public Utilities Committee meeting Wednesday that recent audits found the city’s water billing system to be accurate, the Council members who sit on that body said they still have unresolved concerns.

The water meter read and testing audit, performed by independent utility consultant UtiliWorks in December and January, was the result of last summer’s public outcry from Austin Water customers who received higher-than-expected bills and suspected inaccurate readings or other issues.

Published on Tuesday, the audit report found a 98.86 percent accuracy rate per meter-read cycle for the city’s meter-read contractor, Corix. It also found that, of the 30 meters that UtiliWorks tested, 11 under-registered consumption while none over-registered consumption.

“We feel like the meter system, with our metering audit, is accurately measuring consumption,” said David Anders, assistant director and chief financial officer for Austin Water. “The meter-read processes provide a high accuracy rate of reads for billing purposes.”

Austin Energy, which handles billing for Austin Water, conducted a billing audit that found “no inaccuracies or incorrect billings,” according to Elaine Kelly-Diaz, Austin Energy’s vice president of customer account management.

Anders said that Austin Water and Austin Energy staff plan to continue to analyze the audit data, work to strengthen read accuracies, provide feedback to Corix meter readers, continue to manage reader accuracy testing data and strengthen the utility’s processes going forward.

Assistant City Manager Robert Goode noted in a Tuesday memo that, since the issue arose, the city has conducted 1,928 leak audits without finding leaks, but that it has found 138 meters that indicate a potential leak and 19 meters with water visible in the meter box.

Austin Energy spokesman Robert Cullick noted in a Wednesday press release that “(i)n August 2015, the City pumped more water to customers than in any month since August 2011.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen attempted to sum up the committee’s sentiments. “I think that there’s an interest from all of us, because we want to know what the next steps are,” she said. “So, we learned this information from the audit. You’re still analyzing it, but what happens next?”

UtiliWorks provided its own recommendations. “The current meter reading service provider should consider deeper analysis of its meter readers in the areas where read accuracy rates were found to be lower than the average of other cycles. Re-training of some personnel may be needed,” reads the report.

“AW may consider assigning its own staff to observe the contracted meter reading service provider on a random basis,” the report continues. “(UtiliWorks) recommends that AW consider plans for automating its metering infrastructure.”

Council Member Ellen Troxclair said that she has been working on the issue while Council awaited the audit report.

“I have met with (Austin Water) Director (Greg) Meszaros, and we talked about, outside of this audit, the changes that we could make policy-wise,” said Troxclair. “He is working on some information for me, and we’re going to follow up shortly, and then I hope to bring a policy proposal forward.”

Troxclair also dove into the audit report during the meeting and raised concerns about what the results say about the meter reading process. She said that the 1.32 percent of meter reads that UtiliWorks found to be “discrepant” – out of 1,138 total reads – would equate to a significant figure when extrapolated based on the total number of meters in the city.

Troxclair also pointed out that the report states that the city’s current meter reading contract with Corix “requires the read error to be no more than 1 error per 1,000 reads” – or, in other words, a 99.9 percent accuracy rate.

Kelly-Diaz responded, stating that, under normal circumstances, the vendor has an opportunity to obtain additional reads. “Some of these are resolved in that whole first re-read process. So it’s not 99.9 percent the first time, it’s 99.9 percent (required) within the day-and-a-half or two days that they get,” she said.

Council Member Delia Garza, who chairs the committee, agreed with the desire to continue to pore through the report and follow up with Corix. “Our offices are still getting phone calls about this issue,” she said.

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