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New demands over billing issues for Austin Water Utility

Austin City Council Members said they will not stop trying to get to the bottom of thousands of abnormally high water bills.
Water meter

AUSTIN -- Austin City Council Members said they will not stop trying to get to the bottom of thousands of abnormally high water bills, as members of the Public Utility Commission demanded more answers from Austin Water Utility on Wednesday.

After about an hour of listening to Austin Water Utility officials present new data on their investigation into high water bills, council members started grilling officials for clearer answers.

Ellen Troxclair from District 8 even went so far as to say the public has lost faith in the utility. Austin Water is working towards an external audit of its billing system, but Troxclair wants the utility to also commission an external audit of the meter reading system.

"I don't think that the people here today are going to trust an internal audit by Austin Water," said Troxclair.

Austin Water Utility officials explained their multiple layer system for verifying the meter reading system. An initial reading is performed by an external company called Corix, then the utility has several internal procedures to make sure the reading is accurate.

According to Austin Water, their system measures a 97 percent accuracy rate. However, council members say something is clearly wrong.

"We have to find a smoking gun, and we just keep probing and looking under rock," said Councilman Don Zimmerman.

Zimmerman had proposed a resolution to re-evaluate the tiered-rate structure approved by city council. With increase water usage comes an increase in the cost per 1,000 gallons.

Zimmerman wanted to consider a resolution that would retroactively impose a rate restructuring on consumption even if someone was properly billed, so as to lower their bill if they used too much water. However, he says it would be difficult to determine who was improperly billed.

Ten thousand people have called Austin Water Utility complaining of high water bills since May. Of those, 2,400 received what's called an escalation or higher scrutiny. From those cases of higher scrutiny, only 10 customers received some sort of adjustment or refund.

"I have internal auditors, AE has internal auditors, and maybe we could do more there. We could have someone follow the meter-reader around. I mean, I don't know what we could do to satisfy people that the meter reader system is working properly," said an Austin Water Utility official to the council Wednesday.

Members of the Public Utility Commission said they will go along for a meter reading, including Zimmerman.

"We're going to change strategies and we're going to start going after investigating individual bills," said Zimmerman. "Dissect it down to where I want to know the name of the meter reader who says he's reading that meter for the last six months."

Now Austin Water has to figure out how much an external audit of the meter reading system would cost and come back before council for approval.