There are big changes coming to Austin's policy regarding high water bills following two years worth of coverage by the KVUE Defenders.
Since September, Austin Water has received 395 complaints about high water bills. About 40 percent -- or 159 -- of customers qualified for an adjustment. Starting this month, those customers will have a different recourse for those unexplained water bill spikes.
Austin City Council voted unanimously to change the adjustment process when customers receive an unusually high water bill.
Randy Gorman is a pro when it comes to cutting corners. As owner of his own video production company he's used to making things fit. However, last summer, despite his efforts to cut his water use, he received a surprise.
"They're claiming we used 35,800 gallons of water, which is just not even possible,” Gorman said. “Per U.S. standards a manufacturer with a shower head can only have two and a half gallons per minute maximum flow. That would mean we took 238 hours of showers in one month. That would be three adults in a house doing two full 40 hour work weeks of showers. No sane person does that. It didn’t happen.”
His water bill was ten times the norm.
Dawn Hagood experienced a similar shock.
“This is more than my mortgage payment. This one bill,” Hagood said. “That's unbelievable. I'm feeling like I'm going to lose my home.”
After seeing the KVUE Defenders' stories, Austin City Council Member Ellen Troxclair pushed for change.
“That's the exact situation that made us make adjustments to the program because that is not right. You need to make sure people feel they have recourse when a mistake has been made,” she said.
For the last year, anyone with a water bill three times the norm that could not be explained could pay an adjusted amount -- typically 50 to 70 percent of the high bill. But for those such as Hagood who wanted to have a hearing were stuck paying it all.
“After being in place for a year it was clear that there were some improvements that could be made,” Troxclair said.
From now on if the city can't find a reason for your high water bill, you'll now just pay the average amount you'd typically pay that month -- no more. It's good news for customers such as Gorman.
“I feel happy that thanks to (KVUE Defenders), city council and the citizens who actually spoke up. Something needed to change and I'm definitely glad it did,” he said. “I was getting frustrated feeling like aside from KVUE, my complaints were just falling on deaf ears.”
It won't stop there. City council also ordered another audit of the meter reading process and decided anyone who wants to protest their bill or who was denied a hearing and still has no explanation for the high water usage will also just pay their typical average monthly bill.
"This hopefully puts the power back in the customer's hands and allows them to be confident in the billing process,” Troxclair said.
Here's a breakdown of the latest figures on high water bill complaints:
- 476 High Water Escalation Cases created for the month of September 2017
- 395 total water administrative adjustment cases from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30
- 159 received an adjustment. Three were offered the adjustment, but declined
- 236 were ineligible for an adjustment. That means the amount was not three times the normal bill
If you have a story you’d like the Defenders to investigate email email@example.com or call 512-533-2231.