Troxclair gets meter-reading contract postponed
How accurate are the water meters that determine how much Austinites pay their city-owned utility each month?
Past allegations of frequent misreadings came up again at City Council Thursday, when Council Member Ellen Troxclair suggested that the city is not demanding a high enough level of accuracy in a contract under consideration with the company that will be conducting the readings.
Troxclair noted that the current contract the utility is under with Corix, a Chicago-based meter-reading company, mandates that there be no more than one inaccurate reading per 1,000, while the $3.5 million-a-year contract Council was being asked to approve with Bermex Inc. would allow up to five misreadings, or an accuracy rate of 99.5 percent.
“Considering the issues we’ve had with our water bills, I think it’s really important that we make sure this contract is correct … and that we’re able to hold (the contractor) accountable when mistakes are made,” she said.
Corix bid again for the contract but scored lower than Bermex. Its technology, experience and cost were judged slightly inferior, although it was given credit for having a local business presence.
Austin Energy, the city electric utility, oversees billing for Austin Water.
Elaine Kelly-Diaz, who heads customer account management for Austin Energy, defended the contract’s stipulations, saying that the 99.5 percent accuracy rate refers only to the first manual read of a meter that is conducted. There are other “quality assurance” mechanisms in place that correct a misreading later in the process, she said.
Indeed, when an audit of the meter-reading processes was released last year in response to a large number of customer complaints about unusually high water bills, it identified 15 misreadings, but only six of those led to inaccurate bills. In some cases, a computer algorithm flags a reading that is likely inaccurate. In those cases, the contractor conducts a second reading.
“The high percentage shows that although it is technically possible for a customer to receive an incorrect water bill, it is highly improbable,” said Robert Cullick, an Austin Energy spokesman, in response to questions from the Austin Monitor. “When it happens, we have processes to review bills, adjust bills or promulgate a hearing in front of an impartial examiner.”
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan’s concern was that the Water and Wastewater Commission, which typically makes recommendations on such matters, was unable to muster a quorum to issue a recommendation on the contract. Flannigan said he would prefer for Council to forgo action until the commission could have its say.
“That input would have been extraordinarily valuable to me,” he said, adding that if the commission is unable to meet before Council takes up the contract again, Council might as well approve the contract right away.
Council Member Leslie Pool argued there was no reason to postpone unless Council was going to give staff direction on changes to be made to the contract.
“Unless we’re going to say, ‘Go negotiate a lower error rate,’ I don’t see anything to be gained by waiting for two weeks,” said Pool.
Kelly-Diaz was reluctant to endorse a postponement, as the utility is hoping to transition to a new system soon, before the hot summer months, when water use is highest. A two-week delay would be possible, but not preferable, she said.
In urging her colleagues to support delaying action on the contract, Troxclair made an appeal to Council tradition.
“We talked in work session the other day about how if there’s a Council member requesting a postponement that it’s always been granted,” she said. “So I’m here, I’m requesting a postponement.”
While Troxclair’s colleagues did not seem convinced that there was cause for concern, most of them voted to support her request to postpone. The motion to postpone was approved 8-3, with only Pool, Flannigan and Council Member Pio Renteria in dissent.
Photo by WhisperToMe, Public Domain.
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