Wednesday, July 18, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

Commissioners: Water bills should be overseen by Austin Water

Following the water bill fiasco from last fall, Austin Energy and Austin Water teamed up on a working group to uncover the puzzling reasons behind the unusual spikes.

Although the group started off with one question, Commissioner Mickey Maia reported back to the Water and Wastewater Commission at its July 11 meeting that, “as we got into it, we found that there are various other kinds of problems.”

She noted that some families weren’t receiving bills at all. Others unexpectedly received $12,000 bills. “It’s not just one thing,” said Maia. “There’s a lot of problems with … billing.”

One of those problems, she explained, is customers’ inability to get a resolution to their complaints. She cited instances of it taking months to get a response back from the utility despite repeated assurances from the call center that a customer would receive a callback. She attributes that to the fact that Austin Energy is in charge of Austin 311, through which all calls to municipal utilities are directed.

“I think the root cause of the problem is not the mechanics of what happened. … (It) is, I think, the culture within Austin Energy itself,” she explained. According to her, even if you do get to speak to someone, “their customer service has their own made-up language, so it’s really hard to understand what is going on.” Because of this opaque first point of contact, she said that she is not surprised that customers get discouraged and allow the cycle of unusual billing to continue.

Austin Energy, on the other hand, presented surveys at the working group that demonstrated that its customers are content with their service and that very few people have been affected by unusual water bills. Still, Maia expressed doubts about the charts and graphs, which she said were held so far away that you couldn’t read the fine print.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever find out what the whole story is,” she said.

Maia also noted that after sitting on the working group, she had the impression that representatives from Austin Energy “talk about marketing and sales,” instead of customer service. Even though she expressed misgivings about the attitude that the utility holds when speaking about customer service, she said that she was not in a position to speak to the efficacy of their approach. “I don’t have a management degree. I have no idea,” she said.

Still, she and commissioners Mary Bell and Nhat Ho agreed that meter reading should be brought back under Austin Water, rather than continuing to allow Austin Energy to read the meters, so that Austin Water can help its customers directly.

Bell noted that Austin Energy was not entirely at fault for the spike in bills; she said that Austin Water was partially responsible and should accept its part. According to her, the most efficient way to repair this damage is to take better care of the utility customer.

“Do I think the culture should do some overhaul? Absolutely,” said Ho. However, he added that he wants to reserve judgment on the case as a whole until the working group has concluded and it has its solutions ironed out.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Energy: As a municipally-owned electric utility, Austin Energy is a rarity in the largely deregulated State of Texas. It's annual budget clocks in at over $1 billion. The utility's annual direct transfer of a Council-determined percentage of its revenues offers the city a notable revenue stream.

Austin Water Utility: AWU is the municipal utility that provides water service for the City of Austin.

City of Austin Water and Wastewater Commission: Austin City Council advisory body; charged with oversight of "the policies and resources relating to the Water and Wastewater Utility of the City of Austin."

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