Audits suggest Austin water billing system not to blame for high bills

A couple of audits released Wednesday might back up a claim by Austin Energy that its billing system is not to blame for a sudden spike in water bills last summer. But several Austin City Council members don’t consider the case closed.

The four council members who sit on the Public Utilities Committee heard the results of the audits they requested in October, after thousands of customer complaints poured in over high water bills.

Utility officials emphasized that the audits found little discrepancy in the accuracy of meter readings or the billing process. They have previously said high water use amid the late summer dry spell drove up the water bills.

But Council Member Ellen Troxclair noted that the audit on meter-reading found 15 errors in a sample of 1,138 meters that were checked. The city’s contract with Corix, the company that provides the meter readings, calls for no more than one error per 1,000 reads, Troxclair said.

“There is a pretty significant difference there,” Troxclair said. “It concerns me that Austin Water drew a conclusion that there were no issues when this is clearly an issue.”

Officials with Austin Water as well as with Austin Energy, which handles the billing for all city utilities, said they would share the audit findings with Corix.

The utilities shared the results of the following audits on Wednesday with the committee:

Billing accuracy: A review by certified public accounting firm Baker Tilly Virchow Krause LLP found no errors in the way bills were calculated. The firm picked 162 bills at random from the 1.8 million bills generated last year between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 and looked at whether the gallons billed matched the meter readings and whether the proper per-gallon rates were applied, among other things.

Meter accuracy: This month, Austin Water staff removed 30 water meters across the city and sent the meters to an independent testing facility in New Jersey. That review found 11 meters failed to meet standards, but in all cases, those meters recorded less water than was actually used, not more.

Meter-reading accuracy: Consulting firm UtiliWorks sent its own meter-readers behind the city-hired Corix meter-readers over a span of eight days in December and January. They chose a sample of homes spread across the city’s 10 council districts and made sure to include the River Place and Lost Creek neighborhoods, which had a high number of complaints. Of the 1,138 meters read by the consultant’s crews, 981 meters (or 86.2 percent) matched the numbers from Corix workers. An additional 142 readings (or 12.5 percent) had “a small difference in gallons that seemed consistent with the difference in time between reads,” according to a city memo.

That left 1.3 percent of the tested meters with the larger discrepancies that drew Troxclair’s attention. The audit suggested those differences were likely the result of errors in keying in the numbers. (The city adjusted those erroneous bills.)

Troxclair noted that 1.3 percent isn’t a trivial number in a large utility system. “Citywide, that’s a total of more than 3,000 meters being read inaccurately,” she said.

Council Member Don Zimmerman also raised questions about the meter-reading audit, as the consultant didn’t use the same hand-held meter-reading devices that Corix uses.

“The point of (the audit) was to make sure that the protocol and the process were being done as expected,” Zimmerman said. “If you don’t use the hand-held device, you can’t audit that part of the process.”

There was no discussion at the meeting about how customers might be compensated for high bills. In October, city legal staffer stated that it would be “unlawful to retroactively adjust the rates” without proof of error.

But Troxclair said she has been meeting with Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros to discuss possible policy options “to allow people a one-time forgiveness or a cushion or an assurance that they will not be blindsided (by a suddenly large bill) when they have not been irresponsible water users.” She said she hopes to bring a proposal to the committee soon.

Utility officials said the vast majority of customer billing complaints had been investigated and resolved. Council Member Delia Garza asked if the utility tracked how many of those customers still believe their bills were in error. (Officials said no.)

“Our offices are still getting calls about this issue,” Garza said as the discussion wrapped up, “and it’s frustrating to not be able to give a clear explanation.”

The committee asked city utility officials to continue to look at ways to improve the meter system.

“What I’m seeing in these numbers are there are some things that could be improved,” Troxclair said.

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