Austin officials now have an answer to the mystery of what caused the water bills of thousands of residents to spike in September — and it’s exactly what residents had suspected and the Austin Water Utility had denied was possible.
Two former water meter readers apparently fabricated readings along their routes in late summer, said Kerry Overton, deputy general manager of Austin Energy, which handles billing for both the water and electric utilities.
“What they put in as meter reads could not have happened during the time frame,” Overton said of Corix’s analysis of its employees.
The city contracted out the meter reading work to Corix, and city officials said they expect to seek legal action against the firm. Corix representatives, who have not responded to requests for comment for previous stories, did not immediately return calls for comment late Tuesday afternoon.
The conclusion directly contradicts Austin Energy’s repeated insistence that its system would have made it impossible for meter readers to falsify meter readings. Officials told the American-Statesman and other media outlets that readers do not have access to previous usage numbers for residences on the meter and, thus, have no way to make up new readings.
It shouldn’t be possible for meter readers to estimate reads under the process, said Elaine Veselka, Austin Energy vice president of customer accounts. “How they did it — if they wrote July reads down and then guesstimated an August read or if they gained access to the system — we don’t know,” she said.
The faulty readings underestimated August water use in certain neighborhoods, which caused overbilling in September when accurate readings were made. Because Austin has a tiered billing system, some of the affected residents were billed at higher rates than they would have been if their meters had been read accurately in August.
August was the final month Corix worked for Austin before a new company, Akron, Ohio-based Bermex, took over the contract in September. Corix was short-staffed on meter readers during that time, according to information presented at a Utility Commission meeting in January.
The Statesman first reported on the bill spikes in October in one Circle C neighborhood. The Statesman then analyzed usage of more than 100 residents who sent their bills to the paper, showing the unusual dips and spikes. Austin Energy ultimately provided refunds to more than 7,000 residents who were overcharged.
Most of those customers received a “smoothing” of their bills that averaged them across the affected months, to reduce the impact of higher cost tiers. Credits ranged from 3 cents to $84.
In January, the utility began requiring readers to take photos of each individual meter, at an additional cost of about $400,000 to $500,000 a year. Austin Water also sent its workers to read some meters and double-check the work of the contracted readers.
Overton said a legal team representing Austin Energy has been notified and “will be seeking remedy under the contract” with Corix, a private corporation with headquarters in in Vancouver, B.C., and Northbrook, Ill. It’s unclear at this point what that might entail.
He added that the two meter readers involved no longer work for Corix and do not work for Bermex either.
Austin City Hall reporter Elizabeth Findell broke the story in October about a group of Circle C residents with abnormal spikes in their water bills. She followed up with an analysis of more than 100 water bills from customers across the city who had the same inexplicable jump in billing, raising new questions about why Austin Energy could not account for charges that added hundreds of dollars to some bills.