AE chief: Overbilling ‘legitimately our fault’

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AUSTIN (KXAN) - Despite widespread reports of inaccurate water bills being sent to thousands of Austin customers, the city-owned utility company has yet to perform an audit of its system and cannot determine the accuracy of those bills.

Those are the latest findings in KXAN’s yearlong investigation into the problems with Austin Energy’s billing system, which is the collection arm for Austin Water Utility.

“The amount of billing we do, we know there is an acceptable amount of errors,” said Larry Weis, general manager of Austin Energy. “That is standard in our industry. We’re sorry about the ones that we overbill, and it’s legitimately our fault. Typically that comes from manual reads of meters and a wrong entry. It isn’t caught by our system.”


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Weis told KXAN in a recent interview that an audit last year showing Austin Energy is 99 percent accurate on its bills only applies to the 6 million electric bills the utility sends out every year. Austin Energy, however, is not able to determine its accuracy on bills for the city’s 150,000 water customers, Weis acknowledged.

“To have a system that kicks out water reads is a lot different situation than one that kicks out electric reads,” he said. “We can put the bandwidth around electric usage pretty tight. We can’t really do that with water reads because of the variations you have in homes.”

Meanwhile, Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said she plans to offer a proposal to the full City Council next month that would take the process for challenging waters bills out of Austin Energy’s hands. Under the proposal, which Cole has not yet finalized, a separate city agency would handle such matters so customers could be assured of an independent review.

Since 2001, the city has contracted meter reading to a company called Corix. Their contract with the city was renewed in June of 2013 and their employees read 220,000 water and electric meters each month.

“There is no excuse for an error in a bill. It doesn’t matter if its Austin Energy, if its H-E-B or if its the corner drug store,” said consumer advocate Carol Biedrzycki. “When people are in business, their primary, fundamental responsibility if that when they tell people how much they owe them, that it is the right amount and that is not happening right now at Austin Energy.”

Ignacio Gonzales is among thousands of Austin Water customers who have complained to Austin Energy about a high water bill.  In October, his bill went from an average of $100 each month to $700.

“I went in to shock,” said Gonzales. “And then I called them and they said, well we’re going to send somebody out to investigate to see if there’s any leaks around your property and call us back.  I did call them back and they said that they did not find any leaks and I had to pay the bill.”

Gonzales, whose bill is still going through the appeals process, insists he and his wife did not do anything unusual when it came to their water usage the month before.

“We take showers, wash dishes, my wife does three loads of laundry a week,” he said. “For two people, that’s pretty average.”

 

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