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Council to consider new policy for high water bills

Wednesday, April 6, 2016 by Jo Clifton

If City Council approves the idea, Austin Water customers who find themselves puzzled and/or outraged by a sudden unexplained jump in their water bills will have an additional way to appeal the bill and gain some relief.

A resolution sponsored by Council Member Ellen Troxclair states that Austin Water received calls from 23,944 customers related to high water bills between Aug. 23, 2015, and Jan. 1, 2016. An independent audit of the meter reading system “found that 3.4 percent of the meters could not be read, had a blurred photo or showed a discrepant reading,” according to her resolution.

The utility has for quite some time had an administrative hearings process in place for people who believe that a water bill is too high, but now the utility is proposing expansion of its administrative adjustment procedures such that an actual hearing and legal fees won’t be required.

Under the plan, the water utility will allow single-family residential customers whose water usage is greater than or equal to three times their normal usage to request an administrative adjustment without going through the hearings process, according to Austin Water Assistant Director David Anders.

In order to qualify for that adjustment, the customer must have at least 12 months’ worth of water billing history. Customers may request an administrative adjustment only once every 24 months, according to the resolution.

If the director of the water utility decides that a customer’s high usage is more likely related to the customer’s actions or omissions, the utility may refuse to allow the customer to have an administrative adjustment.

For those customers who do receive an administrative adjustment, the utility will credit the account for 50 percent of the excess usage above the customer’s normal usage, the resolution says.

Anders told the Austin Monitor, “Last summer, we had significant high bills, and a lot of those were resolved. People would call in, and we would do our investigation, and we would say, ‘You’re complaining about 40,000 gallons this year, but you used 40,000 gallons last year.’ So those folks don’t get anything. … So that’s just our standard process.

“But there are some (instances) where people would say, ‘I don’t have an irrigation system; I don’t have a pool; I was gone for two weeks of the month. I normally use 2,000 gallons a month, but I used 50,000 this time.’ And they were before Council and before the public utilities committee trying to get some kind of relief. And sometimes we went through all that investigation, and we couldn’t explain it,” said Anders.

“There’s been an administrative policy in place for a long time. This just tweaks that policy a little bit to provide a better process, so when over-usage is unexplained and we can’t understand what to do or why it happened, it gives us an ability to do an adjustment – as opposed to forcing the customer through the hearings process,” Anders said.

The utility can treat the excessive bill like a leak adjustment, giving the customer a 50 percent credit and charging the other 50 percent at a flat rate, as opposed to the higher rate customers are charged when they use a lot of water, Anders explained. The customer would fill out a form and sign an affidavit saying that he did not use the water.

In addition to helping customers, the new process will also save the utility some money, according to Anders. He pointed out that lawyers working on the administrative hearings charge $400 an hour and that the system is backed up with people wanting a hearing. The number of people requesting the procedure has spiked in the last year, Anders said, with as many as 70 customers waiting for hearings. Eliminating some of those hearings will save the city money, he said.

Austin Water is basing its new administrative policy on a similar policy used by Houston. Last year, about 2,000 customers in Houston used this process, according to Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros. Austin has a much smaller customer base and can expect many fewer people to use its new program, he said.

Troxclair’s co-sponsors include Council members Ann Kitchen, Delia Garza and Don Zimmerman. If Council approves the resolution, the water utility will work on the administrative process and take it before the Water and Wastewater Commission before bringing it back to Council for final approval, Meszaros said.

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