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Austin Energy discusses how to resolve repercussions of water bill fiasco

Monday, December 3, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

It has been over a year since the water bill saga first made headlines in Austin. However, only now are city utilities releasing a post-mortem report designed to help them avoid a similar situation in the future.

While the report that Monica Joyner, an Austin Energy process manager for quality, presented at the Nov. 19 meeting of the Electric Utility Commission was “1,000 times better” than the draft report the commission received in July, according to Commissioner Jim Boyle, he noted that a few crucial points remained unaddressed.

His first point of concern was whether or not Corix, the old meter reading contractor for Austin Energy, had reimbursed the utility for the damages its inaccurate meter readings had caused.

“I read, of course, the Corix contract … and it looked to me they were not in compliance with their contract … did you go back and look at compliance from a contractual standpoint?” he asked Joyner. Boyle noted that if Corix was in breach of contract, the city was not obliged to pay the company until it returned to compliance. In this case, the city paid it anyway during the July/August transition period when the water bill spikes were first noticed.

Joyner explained that the legal department is taking contractual compliance into consideration as it finalizes the settlement with the vendor. The final settlement with numbers should be available in public records later this week. However, Joyner said that what the utility is seeking in recovery damages “is minor compared to what it cost us.”

Boyle likewise pointed out that lack of vendor oversight on the part of Austin Energy was partially to blame for the two rogue meter readers who were not in compliance with the contract (they entered meter reads from the computer system using previous data from their routes).

Of the 206,000 water meters on the system, one-seventh or 32,240 meters were attached to the two routes supervised by the meter readers in question.

“What I calculated is if they were working an eight-hour day, had a lunch break off, maybe even a bathroom break now and then … you’d have to say maybe they really worked seven hours,” said Boyle. According to his calculations, that would mean that each meter reader had to read two meters a minute to complete their rounds on time. “To me, it seemed physically impossible to do,” he said.

Joyner explained that “that’s where we have beefed up and really enhanced our vendor management.” Austin Energy’s new vendor management strategy includes improved technology like GPS tracking that allows the utility to confirm that meter readers stop at each meter individually. “We trust our vendor, but we are going in now and verifying where we weren’t before,” she said.

However, when asked if she was able to verify with the vendor how the two meter readers were able to circumvent the security system and access the data for previous reads on meters, Joyner was unable to give a conclusive explanation. “We would love to be able to find that out, too. But that’s not going to be possible,” she said.

Still, the utility has taken strides to improve its vendor management, internal processes and customer relations as a result of this incident. “It was a hard lesson learned, but it was a lesson learned,” said Joyner. Now, she notes, one of the most important changes is a cultural shift within the utility that encourages proactive solutions and listening to the customer. The next step is waiting for Austin Water to automate its meters. “We’re waiting for the technology to catch up so we can offer our water customers the same experience as our electric customers,” she said.

At the end of the day, she said, “if there’s one awesome thing that came out of this event it’s that we have a better communication route and an improved relationship with Austin Water.”

Photo by Jeff Kramer made available through a Creative Commons license.

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