Audit: City of Austin can improve accuracy of meter reads

Graph indicates water use
Graph indicates water use

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A 2014 audit reveals Austin Water Utility could improve its meter reading. The audit was conducted by a city auditor in response to numerous customer complaints of inaccurate water and wastewater charges.

The audit was done by the City of Austin’s Office of the City Auditor in September of 2014. This, of course, was several months before Austin city council members began receiving thousands of complaints from customers in regards to their summer 2015 bills being higher than normal.

In the audit, City Auditor Kenneth Mory recommended the following: AE [Austin Energy, which oversees all city billing] Management should implement, monitor and periodically evaluate a process to improve accuracy of meter reads. He also recommended AE improve the process for reviewing potentially inaccurate reads and implement a process to identify and communicate potential water leaks.  The last recommendation made was to implement a process to record and review changes to key data fields.

According to the audit, the city “does not have a process to determine if water reads are accurate.” Mory also found that an actual person rarely looks at a customer’s bill. Additionally, he found Austin Energy has not reviewed the parameters that Customer Care and Billing uses to identify reads since implementing the system in 2011.

Since the beginning of 2015, Austin Energy/Austin Water has received 11,416 complaints regarding customers bills, according to information KXAN obtained through Open Records. 4,364 of those complaints were made between June 1 and Sept. 30. In all of 2014, the city received 1,413 complaints regarding possible erroneous billing.

Austin Energy, which does the billing, says since then, they developed a process to “spot check” their 30 contract meter readers. The audit also encouraged more timely identification and communication of potential water leaks. Councilwoman Ellen Troxclair, who is also on the city’s public utilities committee wants to know why the 2014 audit hadn’t been brought up in discussions this year.

“I expect the water utility to then be able to answer questions about whether or not they’ve addressed these issues identified last year and if they have why are we still having the same problems,” saod Troxclair.

KXAN also asked for the number of complaints deemed “non-billing issues” as well as the total number of water billing mistakes made by Austin Energy but we were told the company does not keep track of that information.

Councilman Don Zimmerman says it’s not acceptable the utility doesn’t keep track of how many billing errors it makes.

“A lot of people have lost trust in the staff to solve this problem.  There’s a lack of trust now at this point,” said Zimmerman.

Both Zimmerman and Troxclair say they want another audit done that specifically looks into the water meter reading process and the people reading those meters. They also say they want to audit the data being processed by the billing department. They may vote tomorrow for a new audit, this time by an outside auditor.

Committee members are expected to discuss water billing issues at the Public Utilities Committee meeting Wednesday afternoon. The meeting is open to the public.

Officials with Austin Energy say most high bills are because of increased water usage by customers. Also, because this was the first summer under new, higher rates.

Water used in millions of gallons
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