Human error behind massive Austin Water bills

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Hundreds of Austin Water customers are being charged for water they did not use. A KXAN investigation revealed 550 documented cases of overbilled customers in 2012. The majority of those cases are due to incorrectly read water meter.

For more than a year, KXAN has been investigating high water bills for Austin Water customers, many of whom said they were receiving those bills with no reasonable explanation. From January through August 2013, another 174 customers were overbilled.

“We had over 2.5 million water bills, so 550 into 2.5 million [is] a very small percentage,” said Jason Hill, Austin Water spokesperson. “We, of course, would like it to be zero, but that would basically be impossible. So we’re constantly working on a balance to make sure those errors stay very small for our customers.”

The majority of those mistakes were manual meter readings – human errors. In 2001 the City of Austin started a partnership with Corix Utilities. That company is responsible for reading all of the city’s water and electric meters and has a 99% accuracy rate. Their contract with the city was renewed in June 2013 and their employees read 220,000 water and electric meters each month.

“We apologize,” Hill said. “We say that we are open and we have protocols in place to make sure that those bills are rectified and there are adjustments made on those bills.”

The incorrect meter reads are only the first part of the problem.  Austin Energy, who handles billing for Austin Water, is not catching many of the incorrect bills before they get to the customer, despite implementing a computer flagging system to do so.

“The amount of billing we do, we know there is an acceptable amount of errors,” Larry Weis, general manager of Austin Energy, told KXAN in November. “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.”

Weis told KXAN in the same 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. Weis also acknowledged Austin Energy is not able to determine its accuracy on bills for the city’s 150,000 water customers.

Both entities acknowledge human error will always come in to play with manual meter reads. However, City of Austin officials appear to be trying to limit those mistakes.

At Thursday’s council meeting, leaders will consider buying portable meter testers for Austin Energy. These devices will check meters for accuracy and function. The total starting cost will be almost $72,000.

blog comments powered by Disqus