Residents still question water bills; officials still say system works

Central Texas water utilities, faced in recent weeks with a deluge of complaints about bills showing higher-than-normal water usage, are sticking to their story: It’s not us, it’s you.

Utility officials say rainy weather in May and June, combined with the long dry stretch that followed, led to a sudden and sharp spike in water usage. They say they’ve ruled out possibilities of a systemwide failure, such as by checking billing software and making sure the volume of water pumped matches the volume billed.

But some local politicians and residents say the explanations offered thus far are inadequate.

“It’s an enigma,” Austin City Council Member Ora Houston said. She noted that complaints are coming from “pretty much all over the city.”

“This seems like a systemic issue,” Houston said.

The city of Austin has received thousands of calls about water bills in recent weeks, water and electric utility officials have said. Austin Energy handles billing for the water utility.

A memo that Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros recently sent to the council said the city pumped 62 percent more water this August than in May, compared to changes of 27 percent to 37 percent between those months in the past few years.

Austin Water spokesman Jason Hill said the utility has resolved more than 600 complaints. He said so far the utility has given one water bill credit of more than $800 for anomalous usage, which he defined as an “unexplainable” occurrence of significantly higher water usage, and is processing a second credit for another bill.

In response to all the complaints, Austin Energy spokesman Robert Cullick said the city will hire auditors to examine the billing system. The system was audited in 2012 (electric bills only) and in 2014 (water bills only) and is also audited every year to make sure revenue matches meter readings, Cullick said.

The city hasn’t audited the whole system yet in response to all the calls about high water use on bills, Cullick said. City staffers have ensured individual bills are calculated correctly when customers call in, Cullick said.

Does explanation ‘hold water’?

Bill Conway, who’s lived in River Place in the Northwest Austin area for 19 years, was billed in July for 4,200 gallons at $27. His August bill was for 108,000 gallons at $114.

Conway said he’s been using his water meter to track his sprinkler system, which uses about 1,100 gallons each time he waters his lawn. Otherwise, he’ll use 200 gallons a day. He said he has checked for leaks and checked his water meter. He’s called the city, but no one has come by to investigate yet, Conway said. He’s trying to figure out what to do, as his bill is due Sept. 28.

“I sort of feel like the guy who just got pulled over by police for going 100 miles in a 25 mile zone,” Conway said. “It’s like my word against theirs.”

Meszaros has said that the River Place neighborhood, which is in the process of being annexed by the city, is using about the same amount of water this summer as it has in past years. But unlike past years, River Place is not being served by the area’s separate water-and-trash provider. It now must get its water from Austin’s utility, which charges high-volume users more.

That double whammy — higher tiered rates combined with the late summer rise in water use — might account for the sticker shock, Meszaros said.

Conway’s response: “Pun intended, I don’t think that holds water.” He said the real issue is the astronomical water usage his recent bill showed, not the city’s rates.

Other cities seeing higher bills too

That is a complaint being echoed around the state, including San Antonio, cities around the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, as well as Round Rock, which has received around 500 complaints in recent weeks about high water bills.

The city checked whether anything was wrong with its billing system, but it billed 90 to 93 percent of the water it produced, Round Rock Utilities Director Michael Thane said. The other 7 to 10 percent was lost because of leaks or other causes, he said.

Cedar Park water officials say their system has no systemic flaws. In a half-hour presentation to the City Council last Thursday, Assistant City Manager Sam Roberts said 40 meters in the Forest Oaks neighborhood were checked for accuracy, along with 40 more selected randomly. After the truck that drives through neighborhoods and reads the meters’ radio signals had finished, city employees manually double-checked the readings, Roberts said. Taken together, the meters were 97 percent accurate, he said. (The city relies on the radio meters and typically has employees check readings only to investigate complaints.)

Roberts later said the spike in households’ water use is consistent with the amount that the city is pumping through its pipes. The percent of Cedar Park households that used more than 15,000 gallons of water — and hit the highest price bracket as a result — rose from 5 percent in May to just more than 20 percent in July to nearly 45 percent in August.

Cedar Park City Council Member Lowell Moore said the bills might surprise residents because, unlike many commodities, water is not offered more cheaply in bulk, because it is a scarce resource.

“The more you use, the more your last gallon costs than your first gallon,” Moore said.

Still, Mayor Matt Powell said that based on bills he had seen, “We’re not saying everything is explainable.” But he noted some of the seemingly anomalous readings could be due to the errors that happen every month in virtually any billing system.

Are estimates to blame?

One of the biggest skeptics of the Austin Water Utility’s explanation is Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman, who has come up with his own theory of what’s behind the bills showing high usage.

Zimmerman questioned whether the meter readers — who are employed by a company the city contracts with — are using a “software algorithm” to approximate water use instead of reading all of the meters on a monthly basis. (The city auditor’s office last year pointed to potential problems with the practice of estimating water meter readings.)

Customers could get hit by larger bills if the estimates proved to be off, Zimmerman said.

The city manager has agreed to work with Zimmerman’s office on investigating the theory, such as by looking at meter readers’ logs, Zimmerman said. (A city spokesman confirmed that the city manager will be looking into the theory).

Hill, the Austin Water spokesman, declined to comment on Zimmerman’s theory. Cullick said Austin Energy only allows estimates on meter readings under a narrow set of circumstances, like piled-up debris or a dangerous dog. If meter readers estimate, they are required to go back and get a read soon after, Cullick said.

More broadly, Meszaros has pushed back at accusations that the water utility is trying to increase its revenue, telling the council’s Public Utilities Committee last week, “We do not want this. We don’t want the extra money. We want customers that are happy with our utility.”

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