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Water and Wastewater Commission holds off on billing recommendation

Monday, October 15, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

Over a year after the water billing saga surfaced in the news, Austin Water and Austin Energy are still working to adjust internal processes in order to proactively prevent a similar situation from reoccurring.

In their effort to do so, several months after the misreads were identified, Austin Water and Austin Energy formed a working group in conjunction with their respective commissions to distill customer complaints down to a root cause.

It turns out, the “meter reading episode,” as Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros termed it at the Oct. 10 meeting of the Water and Wastewater Commission, was only “the tip of the iceberg.”

Although the commissioners were in agreement that the billing issue was merely a symptom of a much bigger problem, Commissioner Mickey Fishbeck Maia expressed her dissatisfaction in the conclusions of the working group and her perception of Austin Energy’s lack of contrition for their role in the snafu.

“We’ve already tried without success to get a handle on this … because we still have very high-level people from Austin Energy going out and saying things that are dismissive,” she said.

Due to her lack of faith in the ability for the commissioners and the city utility to work collaboratively to find a solution moving forward, she spearheaded an initiative to bring a resolution to the Water and Wastewater Commission that “encourages the Austin City Council and City Manager to ensure that Austin Energy, in its water meter reading, billing and customer service functions, (is) in concert with Austin Water.”

This resolution came after a stinging presentation at the September meeting of the commission where she presented the difference between the two city-run utilities. In her presentation, she said that by Austin Energy identifying itself as a company – rather than a service – it seems “to focus on other things besides service” which creates a wall between the customer and the utility. Also at the September meeting, she explained that the same “obfuscation” was true for the working group, where she said she did not receive specific feedback on her questions and when she did the answers were “opaque.” Several of the commissioners at the time expressed their assent that the issue was not yet wrapped up in a satisfactory manner.

In search of answers, and in light of the fact that “some of the Council members have an interest already,” Maia’s proposed recommendation focuses specifically on requiring a reorientation of the utility toward customer service.

Since the billing fiasco, Austin Energy has revamped their customer service center and required all of their agents to take training to address empathy as well as ongoing supplemental refresher training for employees.

Still, Meszaros implored the commissioners not to make a recommendation to Council just yet. Instead, he said, “I’d like to demonstrate we can handle this at staff level.” He suggested reconvening in November when Austin Energy leadership, who were “bursting to come tonight,” would be available and open to discussions with the commission.

While Maia felt that the conclusions of the working group were unsatisfactory and was dubious a solution would be able to be found without the intervention of Council, Meszaros explained that the last year had resulted in a lot of internal exploration of processes for both utilities. He also noted that there are preliminary plans for an artificial intelligence customer service system that he believes will help the overall process.

In response to the idea of automated customer service as a solution, Maia was dismissive. “The whole idea of Austin Energy wanting to go to a totally electronic form of customer service, that’s totally unacceptable,” she said.

With feedback on her resolution from Austinites and commissioners alike, the Water and Wastewater Commission decided to hold off passing the resolution onto Council. In order to get their recommendation “on a better path,” they will hear from Austin Energy leaders and reconsider the resolution at their November meeting.

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