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Phantom water bill charges remain an unsolved mystery at Austin Water

Monday, December 18, 2017 by Jessi Devenyns

For several years, water bills have been mysteriously spiking and leaving homeowners clutching their wallets and demanding answers. However, even when the public came en masse to plead that the Electric Utility Commission demand answers from city staff after the most recent surge, Austin Energy and Austin Water had none to give.

On Dec. 11, residents from around Austin and even some commissioners attested to another round of unusual fluctuations that they experienced during the August and September billing cycles. The commission asked Austin Water to clarify why this fluctuation was so widespread.

“I asked to put this on the agenda because I am very, very concerned,” said Commissioner Jim Boyle.

Since Aug. 1 of this year, these overcharges have caused 1,800 complaints to the water utility. Notably, these abnormal bills are not isolated: They are occurring in ZIP code clusters, as reported by the Austin American-Statesman. Council Member Ellen Troxclair told the Austin Monitor that about $150,000 has been refunded to utility customers over the last two years.

Commissioner Cary Ferchill noted, “When it gets really pervasive, that kind of suggests to me that there is some kind of hiccup in the system.”

David Anders, assistant director for Austin Water, explained that water bills fluctuate greatly throughout the course of the year. On an average year, this would mean that water use is significantly lower in colder and rainier months and spikes dramatically in hotter and drier months.

Looking at the complaint patterns, however, it appears that the lowest charges were occurring during the hottest months (August) and the highest during the rainy period post-Hurricane Harvey (September). “The water bill for hundreds of people (in August) was like their winter bill,” said Boyle. “That makes no sense.”

Austin Water was unable to produce a succinct explanation for the unusual billing pattern.

Elaine Veselka, the vice president of customer account management at Austin Energy, assured the commissioners that the problem does not stem from water meter readers estimating their reads. According to her, readers take what are known as “blind reads” because they do not have ready access to numbers from previous months. This plus the system’s flagging safeguard makes estimation unlikely. She noted that annually, less than 1 percent of bills are estimated, and if they are it is marked on the bill.

To further mitigate any risk of estimation, Veselka explained that Austin Water is considering having meter readers capture a photo of every single meter read.

Troxclair told the Monitor that she disagrees with the claim that human error is not a factor in these unexplained spikes in water bills. She pointed to the findings of a 2016 audit that was conducted on Austin Water, which showed that meter readers were making around seven errors for every 1,000 meter reads. According to the city contract, they are allowed one for every 1,000 reads.

In an effort to understand the genesis of this problem, Austin Water says that it is looking at water bills on an individual basis and a city auditor is currently conducting an external review at Troxclair’s request.

Commissioner Dave Tuttle said that these measures are not enough. “I’m not seeing, bluntly, the kind of root cause analysis that is needed,” he said. Tuttle explained that by dragging its feet in solving this issue, Austin Water will lose the confidence of its customer base.

Those who were at the commission meeting had already lost confidence in having their cases resolved. Carol Biedrzycki, executive director of Texas ROSE and former Electric Utility Commissioner, was one of those affected. She argued that current Austin Water policies do not equip representatives to properly deal with these recurring anomalies in billing. “There is nothing in here that gives the customer the benefit of the doubt,” she said.

A particular point of concern was the inability of new homeowners to appeal overcharges if they cannot produce a consecutive 12-month billing history at the property in question.

The commissioners said that they would address this issue at their next meeting, as they plan to conduct a discussion about these abnormal water bills every month until the situation is resolved for the city, not just for the individuals who come forward with complaints.

Lost Creek resident Barbara Sally condensed the issue to one sentence saying, “Resolution does not mean simply closing a file.”

Photo by Andy Mabbett (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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