Austin panel smacks utility for lacking answers on water bill spikes

Dec 15, 2017
Bob Hinman, one of the Circle C residents who received an unusually high bill in September, is shown in October removing the cover to his water meter.

Months after hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Austin residents received huge September water bills after abnormally low August bills, Austin’s Electric Utility Commission flogged city staff members for answers.

It didn’t get many.

“I am very, very concerned,” said Commissioner Jim Boyle, who handed out copies of American-Statesman stories on the subject when the panel met this week.

The Statesman evaluated 106 September water bills residents sent to the paper, all showing huge August dips in water use followed by unprecedented spikes, from clusters around Austin. Citywide, officials said more than 1,800 overbilling complaints were escalated for further action after that billing cycle — more than double a normal month.

But Austin Energy, which handles meter reading and billing for the water utility, said it had no explanation for the dip and spike — and therefore wouldn’t assume responsibility.

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Boyle and other commission members at the meeting Monday said they could think of no logical explanation for why so many people’s water bills in August, typically one of the hottest and highest water use months of the year, would be lower than winter months, unless there was a meter reading or computer error. Residents have theorized that low estimated bills that month led to unusually large September bills, and, under Austin’s tiered system that charges higher rates the more water a customer uses, those homeowners then got hosed.

“I honestly have no answer,” Elaine Veselka, Austin Energy vice president of customer accounts, said of the low August bills.

How a spike in September water bills looked Photo: American-Statesman Staff

David Anders, Austin Water’s assistant finance director, suggested Hurricane Harvey rainfall could have lowered water use in August. Boyle held up a meter reading schedule showing nearly all meters were read before Harvey hit on Aug. 25, and thus its rainfall fell within the September billing period.

“You didn’t come prepared for this meeting, did you?” Boyle asked.

Residents’ options for contesting a high bill include using a one-time adjustment, if the spike meets specific criteria, or trying to fight the bill through a multimonth hearing process.

Several homeowners came to the commission meeting to express frustration at what they called a lack of willingness on the part of customer service representatives to consider their complaints part of a trend, rather than an individual problem.

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Commissioner Cary Ferchill said his own water bill showed the same pattern: Water use in August that was about a third of normal and use in September that was about three times normal.

When his wife flagged the high bill, he tried to think of how their habits could have changed during those months, without realizing others were seeing the same thing.

“It cost me about $300 more than usual,” Ferchill said. “Now it seems to me that this is a more pervasive issue.”

Some residents have questioned whether meter readers could have made accurate readings on meters that were difficult to access or covered by dirt. Photo: American-Statesman Staff

Commissioners frowned on the lack of answers from the utility.

“I’m not seeing, bluntly, the kind of root cause analysis that I find necessary,” Commissioner Dave Tuttle said. “You’ve lost confidence.”

Boyle warned that he didn’t plan to let the issue go.

“You have a lot of people here who want to know what happened, how it happened, and not read in the newspaper ‘the city can’t explain it,’” he said. “I am going to put this item on the agenda every month until we know.”