In the 30 years Gordon and Valerie Brown have lived in Austin — 12 in their home on York Bridge Circle in the Circle C development — their recent utility bill was the first one that’s come as a surprise.
The couple’s August water bill was only $20. Then, in the billing period from Aug. 25 to Sept. 26 — time that included rain from Hurricane Harvey — the bill shot up to $365.
“There’s clearly something weird,” Gordon Brown thought.
He wasn’t the only one. Within three blocks of the Browns’ home in the Park Place neighborhood, 12 bills the American-Statesman evaluated all showed water use in July and August that was a third to half of each home’s annual average and September use triple to quadruple its average. Two doors down from the Browns, retirees Bob and Peggy Hinman received a September water bill for 62,100 gallons of water — nearly 25 times their August usage.
They all checked for leaks: Nothing. They contacted the city and were told the meters were read correctly, period. The city is looking into individual complaints but maintains it has found nothing wrong with the neighborhood water billing so far and has no reason to believe any individual bill spikes are related.
Water bills fluctuate greatly throughout the year, of course. Typically water use is significantly lower in colder and rainier months and spikes dramatically in hotter and drier months. What’s curious about the Park Place neighborhood bills is that water use was so low during the hottest months and so high during a rainy one.
That led to a neighborhood theory that meters were read incorrectly, or not at all, for two months and then the actual water use was logged all at once. Such a scenario would cause an exponential jump in bills because Austin’s tiered billing system charges more per gallon for residents who use a lot of water. For example, 30,000 gallons of water used over three months would cost $182.40, while the same amount of water used in one month would cost $359.69.
“I don’t think they’re charging us for too much water; I think they screwed up for two months and now they’re trying to make it right,” Brown said. “But in doing so, they’re significantly overcharging us.”
Unlikely, said Robert Cullick, a spokesman for Austin Energy, which handles the water utility meter reading and billing.
“We do not have instances of failures of water meter reading systems because it is a heavily audited system,” Cullick said.
The city will evaluate each of the homes that complained based on historical water usage, comparing the same months over multiple years, Cullick said. But he emphasized that the city can’t explain abnormal spikes in water use and hasn’t found anything suspect in the York Bridge Circle bills it has looked at so far.
Water billing spikes in the summer of 2015 led City Council members to order an audit of the billing system. Completed last year, it found 15 errors in water meter reads in a sample of 1,138 meters. Austin Energy representatives said that validated a tiny error percentage and a system working correctly, but critics said errors should be no more than 1 in 1,000, per the city’s contract with meter readers.
As the Park Place neighborhood tries to get answers, residents have grown frustrated at the responses from customer representatives, who outline their options as paying the bill or applying for a one-time adjustment that would refund up to 70 percent of the difference from an average month.
“I tried to tell the guy it was a neighborhood problem, and he was really condescending,” said Christina Allen. “He goes ‘Well, if you’re having problems paying it we can put you on a payment plan.’ … He wouldn’t even entertain the idea that it was a group problem.”
Cullick said representatives who receive complaints can tell if there are a large number of problems in a particular area, but cases are handled individually.
“Water comes through a pipe,” he said. “There’s no relation from one customer to the next except for meter reading, and we have very accurate meter readings.”
Council Member Ellen Troxclair, whose district includes the neighborhood, said she hears often from residents about unexpected spikes in water bills. Last year, the council approved a resolution from Troxclair to allow residents to receive an adjustment every two years if their bill spikes to more than three times the average.
A water rate adjustment defers 70 percent of the difference between the bill and the average monthly cost. Troxclair said she plans to bring forward another resolution that would refund all of the difference for such an abnormality.
Utility billing representatives looked at the bills from the 12 York Bridge Circle homes the Statesman evaluated but said they couldn’t reach any conclusions without a deeper dive into their historical data.
“Although our review is incomplete, we have found no evidence of any failure of the water meter reading system,” Cullick said.