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Austin council members push for more study of water bill complaints

Though complaints about water bills showing abnormally high usage have started trickling off, Austin City Council members continued to press city officials Wednesday for answers about what might have driven those spikes — and how the city has resolved customer calls.

The council’s Public Utilities Committee voted 4-0 to direct officials to explore auditing water meter readings, list the circumstances that might cause a customer to receive an unanticipated high water bill and present ideas to provide financial relief to such customers.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair asked whether there could be a “cushion” or rate adjustment for customers who unexpectedly see their water use skyrocket, driving them into a more expensive rate tier.

“I don’t think that it was the intention of the rate structure to penalize otherwise really conservative or responsible water users,” Troxclair said.

City legal staff told the council in an email it would be “unlawful to retroactively adjust the rates” or “otherwise reduce the debt owed” without proof of an error.

The Austin Water Utility has maintained that unusually wet weather in May and June, followed by a long dry stretch, led to a rapid, late-summer rise in water use.

City officials say they’ve ruled out systemic problems by comparing the amount of water pumped with the amount of water read by meters, conducting internal reviews to verify meter readings and ensuring bills are calculated correctly.

Austin Energy, which manages billing for all of the city’s utilities, is now seeking an accounting firm to audit the billing system, which would involve taking a random sample of accounts billed from January through the end of September and testing whether the bills were accurate.

But Troxclair said she was “really frustrated” by the scope of the audit because the billing system isn’t what people are complaining about.

Council Member Don Zimmerman has speculated the true problem is that Corix, the company the city contracts with for meter reading, hasn’t been able to check meters on a monthly basis — so meter readers have been playing catch-up, resulting in a single extremely high reading.

Since August, the city has received more than 10,000 calls regarding high bills, more than 2,400 of which required additional staff review. Those calls have come from all over the city, though they were initially concentrated in the River Place and Lost Creek neighborhoods.

Seven water customers have received a bill credit because of leaks, and three have received a bill credit because of abnormal water use, Austin Water spokesman Jason Hill said.

The city also reread 6,700 water meters and found that 200 of them had an invalid initial reading. Those customers were rebilled once the city got a valid reading.

Sometimes, an estimated bill is sent to customers if a valid reading can’t be obtained in a timely fashion, but that didn’t happen in a “preponderance” of these cases, said Elaine Kelly-Diaz, Austin Energy’s vice president of customer account management.

Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said the city has done 144 free irrigation audits so far, and that in 83 percent of the cases, the irrigation system was set “improperly,” such as to water multiple days a week or for an excessive period of time. Some systems were set such that the household could use 100,000 to 300,000 gallons a month when irrigating, he said.

Some Austin Water customers say they’ve finally gotten to the root cause of their water use, while others are still mystified.

Bill Conway, who lives in River Place in the Northwest Austin area, still doesn’t know what caused his August bill to show 108,000 gallons used at a price of $1,437 (he has set up a payment plan to pay off that bill). It plummeted back down in September to 15,800 gallons at $147.

Conway said he looked for leaks and made sure his water meter was working properly. His landscaper also checked his property, but as far as he knows, the city never came out to investigate, Conway said.

“Frankly, I sort of have given up on it,” Conway said.

Sharon Hillhouse, who lives in Northwest Hills and saw the usage on her water bills spike this summer, thinks she might know why so many other Austin residents are in the same boat.

“The ground is shifting because of the drought,” Hillhouse said. “That’s why this is so endemic not only to Austin but all over Texas. When the ground is shifting, pipes will break.”

Hillhouse thought something was off when she received her June bill. Then, in August, her usage was 60,100 gallons, compared with 21,400 gallons and 18,300 gallons the past two summers.

She researched when her meter was installed, posted on Facebook and read anecdotes on her neighborhood’s website, had a city audit done at her property and finally hired professionals.

They found a leak where PVC pipe meets a water main 2½ feet underground, Hillhouse said. There was no sign of the leak above ground, she said.

Hillhouse ended up paying about $1,000 for the leak detection and to repair the problem. That’s on top of her water bills, though she hopes to receive a credit from the city.

Hillhouse, a real estate agent, contacted her personal and professional network and found that half of those who responded had some sort of undetectable leak too.

Joel Robb, a partner at Good Flow Plumbing, said his company has visited about 75 to 100 households (including Hillhouse’s) that have had fluctuations in water use appear on their bills. Most of the homes are in Northwest Hills and East Austin and were built in the 1950s to 1970s, when it was common to use metal rather than plastic pipes.

Older pipes prone to corroding, combined with shifts in the ground, have led to leaks, Robb said.

“We got so much rain so quickly and then it dried up so quickly that I have a tendency to believe that the ground is moving quite a bit, which is causing an already fragile pipe to separate, or crack and spring a leak,” Robb said.

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