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Austin City Council looks to provide relief when water bill spikes

Austin City Council members upset about last year’s widespread spike in water bills might offer relief to households that find future water bills suddenly out of whack.

The proposed remedy, from Council Member Ellen Troxclair and the city’s water department, could entitle homeowners and renters to substantial discounts if the city cannot find a leaky pipe or other specific cause of a startlingly high bill. The change would tilt the appeals process back toward residents who have complained that the system now available for challenging a high bill is unnecessarily cumbersome and designed to favor the city’s initial conclusions.

“This is a safety net for residents who have an unprecedented spike in their water bills,” Troxclair said.

Under her proposal, any residential customer whose water use more than triples on a particular bill could appeal. (The city would have a variety of ways of calculating whether it had tripled). If the utility doesn’t find an obvious cause for the high bill, it would cut the extra water use on the bill in half.

That, in turn, could reduce some water bills as much as three-quarters, Troxclair said, as the city’s “tiered” water rates rise substantially at higher thresholds of water use. A customer could file only one such appeal every two years, however.

The council could vote Thursday on Troxclair’s proposal, with advisory boards then weighing in before a final version returns to the council for approval. Some council members, including Sherri Gallo, have already spoken in favor of it. But others, including Council Member Kathie Tovo, worry it could undermine the city’s water-conservation goals by allowing customers to use water without having to pay for it all.

Council Member Don Zimmerman said the proposal could run afoul of state prohibitions against giving free water to some customers.

“I don’t want to create a situation,” Zimmerman said, “where someone can dump 100,000 gallons of water into a neighbor’s pool, then the neighbor returns the favor, and then they call the city and say, ‘Look, a spike in my bill, refund my money.’”

Troxclair countered that there are enough fail-safes built into the proposal that no one could game the system. She added that city lawyers who had questioned similar ideas have given their blessing to this one.

The proposal is a product of the ongoing frustrations among council members over last year’s high bills. Between late August and the end of December, nearly 24,000 Austin Water Utility customers – more than 10 percent of those served by the utility – complained about sudden, unexpected spikes in their bill.

The utility determined that in many cases a home had a leaky pipe, cracked pool or sprinkler system that wasn’t properly set. Utility officials say the surprise might have been caused, in part, by a hot summer that hit along with newly enacted summer rates designed to punish profligate water use.

But some cases defied explanation, according to city officials. And a separate audit found that about 3.4 percent of city’s meters couldn’t be read or had an erroneous reading. Citywide, that would translate to about 7,650 meters.

Most customers who saw their bills spike didn’t opt to go through the city’s lengthy appeal process, which is a proceeding in which both sides often bring lawyers. The city is still sorting through some of those “administrative hearings,” though – prompting water officials to support a more streamlined process.

“Administrative hearings are extremely expensive,” “take a long time to schedule,” and their use is intended to resolve only “a handful” of cases, said Greg Meszaros, director of the Austin Water Utility. The new approach “would help us avoid a large number of hearings when we have an episode like we saw last summer,” he said at a Tuesday council work session.

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