New Austin Water billing safeguards coming amid unexplained spikes

In a room used to hearing frustration and angst over high water bills, Charmaine Skillman had an unusual complaint.

Her water bills are too low, she told Austin’s Electric Utility Commission on Monday. In six of the last 13 months, in fact, she’s been billed for less than 500 gallons of water for a house, followed by bills that are closer to normal.

“I’m here against my self-interest, but I’m so concerned after reading the stories in the paper and hearing the stories (of overbilling),” said Skillman, who was once a Texas Public Utility Commission attorney. “The city has a problem with its systems.”

Skillman’s case might be the unseen flip-side of high water bills that have plagued other residents, particularly the abnormally low July and August readings paired with enormous September spikes for hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Austinites.

Leaders of Austin Energy, which handles meter reading and billing for all city utilities, say they have no idea what caused that pattern in clusters across the city.

But starting next week, they’ll begin requiring meter readers, who work for the city as outside contractors, to take a photo of each meter when they read it. Doing so will add an estimated $400,000 to $500,000 per year to the cost of those contracts because it will take longer for crews to get to all the meters. The utility won’t immediately have to seek City Council approval for that — it will just mean the city will run through its existing meter reading contract faster, said Kerry Overton, deputy general manager over customer service.

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

Currently, readers are expected to take photos of meters only if they receive an alert that the reading registered as extremely low or high compared with that month the previous year.

Austin Water also will begin looking over Austin Energy’s shoulders on billing matters. The water utility will mirror the meter reading and billing process to make sure it’s being done correctly, said Elaine Veselka, the energy utility’s vice president of customer accounts.

After the American-Statesman in October wrote about the irregular bills for residents on York Bridge Circle in Circle C, more than 100 residents around the city sent copies of bills to the newspaper showing a similar trend. At least 1,800 customer complaints to the city were escalated for further investigation, the city said, more than double a typical month.

After the Statesman story, Austin Energy ran its own query of the water use of all 70 properties on York Bridge Circle and found their September bills averaged 400 percent what their August bills were, according to emails exchanged within the utility.

The low meter readings during August — one of the hottest and highest water use months — and the high readings during a billing period that included rain from Hurricane Harvey led many to guess that crews had skipped the meters one month and then logged much of the use the next month. Doing so would lead to a sharp spike in bills, because Austin Water has a tiered billing system that charges higher rates as water use goes up.

Austin Energy officials insisted that scenario was impossible, however, because meter readers, who work for companies under contract with the utility, don’t have access to previous meter readings to estimate them. But their managers do, according to emails exchanged within the utility.

ALSO READ: As jump in water bills riles Circle C residents, few answers from city

July and August were the last meter reading months under a contract with Corix Utilities, before Bermex Inc. took over Aug. 28, staff said. Corix was short-staffed on meter readers during those months, according to information Utility Commission Member Jim Boyle presented at the meeting. But it is unclear whether anyone at Austin Energy has asked Corix if any of its routes were skipped or estimated.

“I’m not aware of that question being asked,” Overton said.

The company did not return Statesman calls for comment. Austin Energy officials said they are just beginning to drill down into an investigation of what happened in August and September.

The utility has begun “smoothing” the bills of some customers with abnormal July/August/September bills to retroactively reflect water use more balanced between the months, to offset the impact of the tiered system. Of the residents who reached out to the Statesman about the issue, six reported Tuesday they had received some credit from Austin Energy.

Much of the frustration connected to the water billing has revolved around customer service representatives who, residents say, insist the customer must have used the water, without recognizing clear abnormalities. Commission Member Cary Ferchill mentioned someone he knows who received a bill for zero gallons of water used, followed by one for 89,000 gallons.

“Logic tells you that can’t be right, but when he called to get some help, it was a constant repeat of the same questions: ‘How many pools do you have?’” Ferchill said. “There’s got to be a point at which they use common sense.”

Overton acknowledged that, saying customer service representatives are trained to prioritize resolving complaints on the first phone call without kicking them up for further review.

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