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Austin Water still repairing shattered trust with water bill smoothing

Wednesday, March 21, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

After months of investigation, Austin Water and Austin Energy have an answer for the unusual spikes that Austinites saw in their water bills last September.

Although Austin Water responded and changed its meter-reading contractor after the rash of misreads came to light, it is only now that the utility is discovering what precisely went awry.

“We found that there were two meter readers associated with that (prior) contractor who entered in incorrect reads into the system,” Kerry Overton, the chief customer and compliance officer for Austin Energy told the Electric Utility Commission at its March 19 meeting. Austin Energy operates the Utilities Customer Service Office.

According to Overton, these misreads that caused 17,000 customers to experience the unusual pattern of unseasonably low bills in August followed by soaring bills in September were an isolated event. He explained that there was no indication that this pattern was repeated in previous years.

The prior contractor was Corix, a Chicago-based meter-reading company. Despite the fact that it was a unique incident, due to the breach of contract associated with the incorrect meter reads during this two-month period, Austin Water is “pursuing a recovery of costs” from the company, said Overton.

While the utility is still waiting for financial rectification on its end, it has not delayed trying to smooth bills for its customers.

In December, Austin Water announced that it would have all its customer accounts analyzed, notifications for bill adjustments sent out and credits administered by March 15. However, as of March 19, Overton noted that there are still “a couple hundred (claims) still in the hopper” that are being reviewed for an adjustment as well as some that remain on hold for residents who have exercised their right to go to an administrative hearing.

So far, 4,000 customers who experienced the unseasonable pattern have received an adjustment.

Adjustments were conducted for customers whose “consumption” rocketed them into a higher tier that triggered an increase in the price per gallon of water.

Commissioner Jim Boyle noted that there were some extreme cases that Austin Water did not have answers to. For example, there were 700 customers who experienced astronomical increases between August and September. “Some of them were up to 25 times (the rate of) August,” he explained. He also said that he noticed that pockets of customers encountered bills that did not exactly fit the identified pattern and had low readings in July and August followed by high bills in September. He suggested that Austin Water keep its customer service lines open past the cutoff date for filing complaints. “It concerns me that we’re not catching everything,” he said.

Austin Water staff, however, is only working on addressing the August and September low-high pattern that it confirmed to be a widespread issue.

As a result of the efforts to understand the root cause of the spike, Overton explained that for future interactions with customers who have concerns about their bills, “We’ve added well over a dozen or more analyses that were not in place prior to this review.”

Photo by Michael Pereckas made available through a Creative Commons license.

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