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Council OKs relief measure for water customers

Monday, April 11, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

City Council on Thursday voted to make remediation easier for customers who are accidentally soaked by the local water utility.

The resolution brought forth by Council Member Ellen Troxclair directs City Manager Marc Ott to cobble together a set of amendments to city code that would allow Austin Water utility customers who experience a spike in their bills to seek a partial refund.

The language of the resolution notes that nearly 24,000 customers complained of high bills between August 2015 and January 2016.

It also cites a recent independent audit that found that 3.4 percent of meter readings were not accurate.

“It became clear to me that we needed to put a process in place at the city level moving forward that would allow our constituents to have an opportunity to dispute bills when we think that there is a legitimate problem and when there is an unexplained spike in their water bill,” Troxclair said.

The new policy would replace the current one in which customers can seek refunds through administrative hearings.

Austin Water utility Director Greg Meszaros said that AW “estimated that a hearing costs at least $500 and often results in a decision that’s well less than that in terms of dollars back to a customer.”

He also explained that the hearings can take several months to set up, due to the initial investigation conducted by AW stuff.

“I think customers get frustrated and they give up, where a little more administrative tools would help us there,” he said.

Under Troxclair’s policy, customers who receive a bill that is three times their normal usage can apply for a 50-percent refund by signing an affidavit.

Troxclair acknowledged the assistance that Meszaros and his staff provided to help craft her resolution. Meszaros told Council that AW looked to other cities such as Houston to find similar policies.

Before voting on whether to direct city staff to create a new ordinance, Council Member Leslie Pool asked whether it was possible to instruct staff to report on the impacts of the change.

“Do you want to wait until we have an ordinance to approve?” Mayor Steve Adler asked her.

Pool consented to allow language in the resolution to contain a provision for staff to eventually report impacts of the ordinance to Council, if Council approves the ordinance.

The resolution passed on a 10-1 vote, with Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo opposed.

Photo by Bruce Fingerhood made available through a Creative Commons license.

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