Austin utility to give refunds for fall water bill spikes

Austin Energy will provide refunds to more than 7,000 residents who saw higher water bills due to an anomaly involving abnormally low August meter readings and September spikes, the utility said Wednesday.

The American-Statesman first reported on the phenomenon in October in one Circle C neighborhood. Then, more than 100 residents sent their bills to the Statesman showing the unusual dips and spikes, and thousands contacted Austin Energy, which handles meter reading and billing for both utilities.

In a memo to City Council members Wednesday, the utility apologized for its handling of the situation.

“We should have found this faster and we should have found it ourselves,” Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent said. “We should have had better safeguards against unreasonable water meter reads.”

Wednesday’s mea culpas and moves to fix the bills are an abrupt turnaround after months of Austin Energy officials insisting it was impossible for meter reading to be flawed and saying they would not reimburse customers.

The analysis made public this week ultimately found the same pattern of abnormal, nonweather-related billing dips and spikes on 135 of the 1,080 meter-reading routes. Of the approximately 32,000 accounts on those routes, about 17,800 had the same low August/high September pattern, the analysis found.

Only about 7,400 of those paid more because of that anomaly, as the September spike kicked their water use into a higher billing tier, Austin Energy staff said. Those customers will see automatic bill adjustments based on a “smoothing” process that balances the total water use between both months and credits the account for any cost paid over that amount.

BACKGROUND: Frustration mounts as city says there’s no explanation for water spikes

For most people, the credit won’t be much. Credits range from 3 cents to $84, with the average being about $20, staff said.

An additional 700 people had exceptionally high September spikes, but not necessarily connected to low August readings, and will have those cases resolved on a case-by-case basis, the staff said. They are eligible to use the city’s typical process to receive a one-time billing adjustment for part of the spike.

But, in this case, the adjustment won’t count against the city’s limit allowing customers to use that process only once every 24 months.

“Because this could have been an error on our meter reading part, that will not prevent them from getting an additional adjustment,” said Drema Gross, an Austin Water water conservation division manager.

Utility initially downplayed complaints

It’s still unclear exactly what happened on the affected routes.

Austin holds contracts with private meter-reading companies, and the August readings were the last performed by Corix Utilities, before Bermex Inc. took over. Corix was short-staffed on meter readers during that time, according to information presented at a recent Utility Commission meeting.

“We’ve asked (Corix) to look at all aspects of their operations and be prepared to explain,” said Kerry Overton, deputy general manager over customer service.

Since Corix no longer holds the meter-reading contract, if the billing issue was the firm’s fault, any action against it would have to be weighed by the city’s legal team, Overton said. He emphasized that the company is cooperating with the city’s inquiry.

ALSO READ: New Austin Water billing safeguards coming amid unexplained spikes

In October, Austin Energy officials said its meter reading was too heavily audited to have failures. In November, it acknowledged some unusual bill patterns, but said in the absence of an explanation it would not accept blame for them.

A Statesman review of hundreds of emails related to water meter readings exchanged among Austin Energy leadership during that time showed flurries of emails with media talking points, bill accuracy reassurances to several City Council members who reached out with constituent concerns and a proposal from public information officers to make a movie about meter reading to boost residents’ confidence in it.

Almost none of the emails contained questions about whether something might be off, even though one staffer produced an internal analysis showing that, just on York Bridge Circle in Circle C, residents’ average September water use was four times their August use.

“I’m wondering if there’s something that can be done to get beyond the ‘unexplained’ bill issue,” wrote Barksdale English, an interim chief of staff, to Elaine Veselka, vice president of customer accounts, Oct. 11. “The policy nerd in me can’t stop thinking that there’s something undiscovered either on the customer side, the utility side or the billing side.”

“This is an issue older than time,” Veselka responded.

Other changes coming

But the issue gained momentum as media attention, resident complaints and scrutiny from the Electric Utility Commission mounted, leading to some reforms.

Last week, Austin Energy began requiring readers to take photos of each individual meter, at an additional cost of about $400,000 to $500,000 per year since it will take crews longer to do their rounds. Austin Water has also begun reading some meters and keeping its own database, to double-check the work of the contract meter readers.

This week, Austin Energy officials acknowledged complaints from residents that its customer service representatives were dismissive of reports that the water issues followed a trend and were overly focused on what customers had done to use the water. Spokespeople said the utility would look at changing the scripts its customer service people use.

“I started my career in customer service nearly 30 years ago,” Sargent said at a news conference Wednesday, noting that in this case, “I’ve heard stories of customer service that was not exceptional.”

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