AUSTIN (KXAN) – When Tom Entsminger opened a recent water bill from the city of of Austin, he expected it to be for the usual $200, give or take.
Instead, it was some 25 times more than that.
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“There was no way I was using that much water/ The consumption I was being billed for was sort of cartoonishly high,” Entsminger said, joking that itcould have filled “a sinkhole.”
The bill said Entsminger had used some 400,000 gallons that month and that he owed around $5,300. Because he uses automatic payment system, the bill wouldn’t clear his bank account.
“If the bank draft had gone through, I wouldn’t have known about it until I tried to pay for something else and not had any money left. And so conceivably it could have happened without anybody even knowing,” he said.
Entsminger’s story is becoming familiar. KXAN began investigating the issue in October 2012. Then toward the end of this last summer we began receiving more and more calls and emails from people with outrageously high water bills for no apparent reason.
Take the case of St. Louis King of France Catholic Church. It recently received a $35,000 bill. And when the Church complained, a City of Austin water meter reader told church officials their meter reading was accurate and their bill must be correct.
The bill claimed the church used more than 6 million gallons of water between July 8 and Aug. 8. That’s enough to fill an average backyard swimming pool 500 times.
“So what do you say to that accountant over at St. Louis Catholic Church who opened up that $35,000 bill and nearly had a heart attack?” KXAN’s Shannon Wolfson asked Jawana Gutierrez, vice president of customer care for Austin Energy, which handles the city’s utility billing. “
The first thing we say is: we apologize for the mistake,” she responded. “That was clearly a mistake on our part it should have clearly never gone out.”
New billing system, new glitches
Austin Energy told KXAN a year ago these billing errors would be fixed when we brought numerous cases of over-billing to the city’s attention after it implemented a new billing system.
“Initially, when we initially implemented the new system there were some difficulties, those system problems have been worked out,” an Austin Energy representative said at the time.
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Austin Energy said the new system is supposed to flag unusual spikes in consumption and billing but there are sometimes inadvertent human errors spotting them.
“We feel like we are doing an excellent job identifying when there’s an extreme high or an extreme low,” said Gutierrez. ”That report that runs every day and flags those anomalies, it runs without failure.”
And she’s right. Between March and September, Austin Energy records show the high-low system flagged more than 93,000 bills. So why are some customers still getting over-billed?
“I think where we can improve and where we will improve is in that manual piece,” said Gutierrez.
And since KXAN started investigating, Austin Energy says it has stepped up its efforts to catch these mistakes before they get to the customer.
“We’ve implemented a check-the-checker process,” said Gutierrez. “And so now where there’s a human person that has to review it, there’s another person who has to review that person’s review.”
And after the manual checks the bill now goes back through the computer system. As it turns out in Entsminger’s and the church’s case, the meter reader made a mistake.
KXAN found 5,047 complaints from customers to Austin Energy about unusual spikes in billing.
Several utility customers weighed in on this report. Review the comments in the “In-Depth. Investigative” box above. If you believe your bill is unusually high, Austin Energy has set up a dedicated phone line for customers wanting to dispute their bill. That number is 512-494-9400.