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Austin Water audit finds meters accurate overall

The Austin Council Public Utilities Committee called for an audit of Austin Water after customers reported high bills.

AUSTIN -- The results of an audit on Austin Water's meter reading system and billing system is now complete. It found overall, the meters and readings are accurate, but there are some discrepancies that concern city council members.

In the summer of 2015, 10,000 Austin Water customers reported to the utility that they had unusually high water bills. Some bills stated customers more than tripled their use. Austin Water studied the problem. It adjusted bills for 10 customers, and said others had leaks that they couldn't see and found in most cases, people were simply using more water.

The City Council's Public Utilities Committee ordered Austin Water to have an external audit completed, looking at the meters and how they're read. Wednesday afternoon, they got the results of the audit. (The audit is published at the bottom of this story.)

The auditors attempted to read 1,163 meters. Of those, 19 meters were unable to be read because they were foggy or full of water. Of the ones that were read, the auditors and Corix, the company that reads meters for the city, got the same reads 86.2 percent of the time. The auditors are readers had a small difference in gallons of the readings 12.48 percent of the time. And 15 of the meter reads were identified as having a read difference of more than 500 gallons.

Austin Water staff said those discrepancies were mostly keying errors or transpositions. For example, the Corix read was 6,909 and the audit read was 9,609. They also said five of 15 readings triggered the high/low test of the billing system and required re-reads. 

Council Member Ellen Troxclair pointed out that while that discrepancy is just 1.32 percent of the meters that were read, it would equate to thousands of meters across the city being misread.

"Clearly if you kind of look at the meters based on the sample size and then based on the number of meters you have citywide, if you look at the total meters citywide, we're talking about thousands and thousands...which, you know, is a lot of homeowners and a lot of people and a lot of real money to them," Troxclair said.   

There are about 200,000 residential water meters in Austin; 1,32 percent of that would be 2,640 meters.

Another issue Troxclair had with the finding is that it does not meet the city's standards. The margin of error that is outlined in the contract between the city and the company that reads the meters for major discrepancies is one per thousand. 

Austin Water staff said they will go over the data in the audit to find ways they can improve the system. Troxclair is also working to find relief for homeowners. 

"If there are changes that can be made, I want to make sure that people who are otherwise reposnsible water users are not being put in this position of getting a water bill that is completely outrageous that they really didn't expect. So, I've been talking with [Austin Water] Director Meszaros about a couple of different options that I could pursue and asked him to provide some additional information to me and then like I said, I'll be coming back to the committee to kind of vet that information and decide on a potential plan forward," Troxclair said. 

As for what caused people's water bills to increase, Troxclair said, "there is no simple answer. Some people did have leaks. Some people were using their sprinkler more than they thought, but there are still a large number of people, in my opinion, who have unexplained high bills. And that's what we're hoping the audit will get to the bottom of once we have time to really review it and then follow up with our vendor."

Austin Water also did an audit of the accuracy of the meters. It removed and tested 30 meters and the independent auditor also tested those same meters. Eleven of the 30 meters failed to meet the American Water Works Association standards. And some of the failed meters were under-registering consumption. But Austin Water reported to the committee that the water flow matched the metered water 93.4 percent of the time. Also, the metered water matched meter reads 98.9 percent of the time and the customer consumption compared to the master meters is accurate 97.9 percent of the time. 

Austin Energy audited the billing system to make sure Austin Water customers were being correctly billed for what the meters said they were using. Staff randomly selected 162 bills to review and found the bills matched the meter reads 100 percent of the time.