As soon as he saw his September water bill, O.T. Greer knew something was wrong.
In the 44 years he’s lived at his house on Aspen Street in North Austin, he’d never seen a water spike like the one this fall when his bill jumped from $22 to $215 in a month. Greer and his neighbors pride themselves on water conservation. His yard is xeriscaped with cacti and rocks. He waters by hand, and he didn’t even do so in September, after he logged more than 10 inches of rain from Hurricane Harvey.
But Greer and his neighbors saw the same thing, which mirrored reports from hundreds of other people in clusters across Austin: bills that showed a dramatic dip in water use in August, typically one of the hottest and highest-use months, and an unprecedented spike in September.
After inquiries from the American-Statesman and complaints from thousands of residents that have backlogged Austin’s complaint hearing process, city representatives acknowledged that something odd happened in August or September.
But they said they have no explanation for the spike — and therefore won’t assume responsibility for the high bills.
“There’s no question the water use between June and September is correct,” said Robert Cullick, a spokesman for Austin Energy, which handles meter reading and billing for the water utility. “There’s the possibility the meter reads between that time are not. … We haven’t found anything that’s untoward, but it’s not clear what happened in those months.”
After the Statesman wrote about one affected neighborhood in Circle C, more than 100 residents around the city sent copies of their water bills to the paper, all showing abnormal dips in use followed by unprecedented spikes. City complaint lines lit up and some 1,800 cases were escalated for further investigation or action — more than double a typical month, said Tiffani Webb, an Austin Energy client relationship coordinator.
Austin Energy still looking for answers
Many of the complaints came in geographic clusters around the city and seemed to follow a similar pattern. But without knowing what happened, Austin Energy representatives said there’s nothing they can do other than point people to normal methods of challenging bills.
“We’ve seen a pattern, but it is truly unexplained,” Webb said.
That leaves residents with three choices:
1) Pay up.
2) Use up a one-time adjustment, if eligible, for an unexplained spike.
3) Commit to a two- to three-month hearing process that might lower the bill.
In the neighborhoods the Statesman evaluated, August water use averaged only 40 to 60 percent of residents’ 13-month average, while September water use was three to four times average and three to five times that of the previous September.
Austin Energy representatives said they’re trying to figure out what happened. The city began a contract in May with a new meter reading company, which is heavily audited and includes many safeguards, officials said. They said they’ve checked which meter readers were in particular areas, the timing of the data that were entered and whether there were any water pipe problems.
While many residents have theorized that water meter readings were skipped or estimated for a couple of months and then caught up later — hitting residents with exponentially higher bills because of the tiered billing system — Austin representatives insist that’s impossible. They said meter readers don’t have access to the previous readings on a meter and, thus, could not even make up a number assured to be larger.
But they’re still looking for answers, they said.
“This is my priority,” said Stacy Lewis, a customer service manager over escalations. “This is (Webb’s) priority. This is our focus right now.”
One-time bill adjustment available — for some
In the meantime, the adjustment process exists to deal with the unexplained, representatives said.
This month, at the urging of City Council Member Ellen Troxclair, the council voted to make 100 percent of the overage of a high water bill eligible for reimbursement, up from 70 percent under the previous policy. But that higher reimbursement amount won’t apply retroactively to September bills.
The adjustment policy, passed after outcry over water bill spikes in the summer of 2015, allows refunds of use over “expected use” for one or two months if the spikes are more than three times the water use during that same month from the previous year. There must be a year’s worth of data on that customer’s account, and a resident can apply for such an adjustment only once every three years.
Those restrictions mean some people aren’t eligible for adjustments.
Nora Chuo, who lives in Northwest Austin, saw September water use that was more than five and a half times her previous annual average. But she was denied an adjustment because it fell just short of three times what her previous highest September was.
Dolores Neitsch, who’s lived in her house on Cripple Creek Drive for 43 years, said she’s only had a water bill spike once, two years ago, when she had a leak. She paid it in full without trying to contest it, because she figured the leak was her fault. But now, she said, billing representatives are using that one-time spike to deny her an adjustment this year, citing it as evidence of previous high water use.
Mike Chernoff, whose water bill jumped from $270 in August to $777 in September, said the hit came just as he was trying to save money for the holidays, and it would probably make him buy less expensive gifts for his two young children. A recent transplant from Phoenix, he’s lived in his house only 10 months and thus is not eligible for an adjustment.
Resident: ‘It wasn’t our fault’
For people who don’t qualify for the adjustment, they can turn to a hearing process that relies on independent lawyers who are appointed to rule on whether a bill should be changed. That process usually takes 60 days, but it’s running behind because there are so many complaints pending, Webb said.
When Greer’s neighbors began comparing notes, they organized a meeting at their neighborhood church with Council Member Greg Casar and nearly a dozen Austin Energy representatives. The billing department representatives were polite, they said, but they’re frustrated it still falls on their shoulders to pay the bill.
“The evidence is: Something happened,” said Frank Zigal. “It wasn’t our fault. On their own graphs they know something occurred, but (still say) ‘You don’t qualify for a refund.’”
Eyes on government
City Hall reporter Elizabeth Findell examined water bill spikes experienced by more than 100 Austin Water customers who inexplicably received massive bills. She routinely mines public records to show how the city works, and she has pressed for information on the city manager search that is largely being conducted in secrecy.