For nearly a year, the monthly bills for water on Paul Saustrup’s vacant agricultural lot in Southeast Austin were predictable: $7 here, $6 there.
Then came one that made him look twice: $12,111.68.
“I just got a literally shocking water bill,” he told a customer service representative in a Nov. 22 call to Austin Energy, which handles billing for both utilities. “I think it was a clerical error (or) they read the wrong meter or something.”
Austin Energy is amid a reckoning of its customer service policies, after initially dismissing accounts of meter reading problems that spiked the September bills of thousands of residents citywide. Since then, the utility has acknowledged it was too slow to see the billing problems, refunded customers and said it will retrain agents to pay more attention to indications of system errors.
Saustrup’s case, while an isolated incident, provides insight into a system that, even facing the most unbelievable of charges, is structured to insist that the customer is on the hook for unexplained water use spikes. For months, customer service agents failed to return Saustrup’s phone calls, even as the utility added late fees to the bill in question and withdrew hundreds of dollars from his bank account.
Using the Texas Public Information Act, the American-Statesman obtained transcripts of all of Saustrup’s phone calls with the utility.
On that first Nov. 22 call, a customer service agent named Robert looked at the account information for a few minutes before he said he’d found an explanation for the spike. Meter readers missed Saustrup’s meter for about seven months.
“It read at basically the total amount and billed at a tiered level,” the agent told Saustrup.
Saustrup knew better. Even seven months of water use wouldn’t add up to $12,000, no matter how high the tier. When he argued that point, the agent said he didn’t know what happened but would mark the account for escalation. Someone would be in touch.
Three weeks later, no one had called Saustrup back. But the utility deducted $800 from his bank account without warning. Because of that, Saustrup’s rent check bounced. He called again on Dec. 12.
The customer service agent, Debra, put him on hold while she called a support line, according to the transcript.
“We should be putting him on a payment arrangement,” the support agent said. “Let him know, we’re still looking at it.”
When Debra came back on the line with Saustrup, he asked her who was looking into it. It wasn’t assigned to anyone yet, she told him. An agent would call him back within 24 hours, she said.
A week later, no one had called. But the utility sent him a notice that he owed a $600 late fee on top of the $12,000. So he called again on Dec. 18.
“If you look at my file, or whatever, you should see that I have called several times and expressed extreme concern that my bill went from $6 to $12,000,” he told the agent, Toni. “All I have is a faucet in a field to water cows.”
“Have you been monitoring how much water you’ve been using?” the agent asked, after pulling up his account. She told Saustrup he should be checking his own meter every three days or so to make sure he’s not overbilled.
Saustrup, who owns a laundromat that sometimes uses up to 60,000 gallons a month, is familiar with water use. The bill for his 15-acre parcel claimed he’d used nearly 800,000 gallons — more than an Olympic swimming pool and as much as an average American household uses in eight years.
“It would have flooded the whole neighborhood to use the amount they are claiming I used,” he said. “There’s obviously a big error somewhere.”
The agent put him on hold for a few minutes. Then she came back and said an empty lot with a few cows isn’t really a residential property. She recommended that he call back and follow automated prompts to reach the commercial billing department.
Later that day, a fourth customer service agent, Mark, called Saustrup. A frantic email Saustrup had sent earlier in the month to elected officials had paid off: Mayor Steve Adler’s staff had intervened to ask someone at the utility to give him a phone call. Mark said he’d look into Saustrup’s case and would be in touch soon.
Saustrup thanked him, but was beginning to tire of the nonanswers. “I lost my faith and trust in the system that would … bill me $12,000,” he told Mark, “and then raid my bank account at night for the maximum amount they could get after taking a month to not call me back.”
Mark called a couple of times to check in over the next month, each time saying investigators were working on it. By Jan. 22 he had an answer: Investigators hadn’t found anything, so Saustrup owed the money.
The utility would spread the costs over the months it didn’t read the meter, to reduce the impact of the highest-rate tiers, but the total wouldn’t change much, Mark said. “The bill is still almost $11,000,” he said. “However, on this end, there is no more to dispute because we know we have the right meter. … We know the beginning and ending reads.”
Mark suggested that Saustrup try his luck at a monthslong administrative hearing process.
Saustrup was incredulous. “There’s no way,” he said. “There’s no way that $12,000 worth of water went through that meter.”
“I can’t tell you any more than that,” Mark responded.
Later that night, Saustrup’s wife, Sasha, went to an Electric Utility Commission meeting to plead with commissioners to do something.
“I don’t know if the meter is broken, the meter reader is broken, but certainly the utility department customer service is broken,” she said. “It seems like there should be some kind of stopgap measure where, if a bill comes out to $12,000 one month, they might investigate.”
After those words in front of public officials and utility executives, Austin Energy took a second look at the Saustrup case. By the next month, staff members told the commission they had discovered that a water main break on an Austin Water Utility line had caused the Saustrups’ meter to malfunction.
The utility credited them $12,121.76. (It’s unclear why that precise amount.)
Paul Saustrup is continuing to negotiate over a subsequent unexplained $300 charge. But other than that, his bills have returned to their normal $6 a month.
Austin Energy officials said this week that Saustrup’s case was unusual and represented failures by multiple people. Agents should have called him back. He should have been immediately flagged for escalation and given a single agent to contact. The drafts from his bank account should have stopped at $100, but multiple drafts were created to cover skipped bills from March to October, allowing the utility to withdraw $800 in one swoop.
“It was one mistake after another,” Austin Energy Deputy General Manager Kerry Overton said. “It’s very rare that I would see something with this number of mistakes made on an account.”
The training of customer service agents, which has typically focused on finding a problem on the customer’s side, will begin to help agents recognize whether a problem on the utility’s side is possible, Overton said.
Two former contracted meter readers made up readings for August water use in certain neighborhoods, which caused overbilling in September for more than 7,000 customers when accurate readings were made. Austin Energy insisted multiple times to residents who challenged their bills and to the Statesman that errors in the system couldn’t be to blame, before investigators finally determined the truth.
City auditors last month analyzed Austin Energy’s water billing procedures, in response to concerns from City Council Members Ellen Troxclair and Alison Alter. Auditors looked at a sample of 41 of 3,000 complaints made in 2017.
“Austin Energy handled every complaint in accordance with their policies,” auditors concluded.