AUSTIN (KXAN) — An audit of the Austin Water billing system found that they operate under 98.86 percent accuracy. The audit was a result of thousands of customers claiming they were over-billed for water they didn’t use.
The Public Utilities Committee asked Austin Energy, the company in charge of the water billing system, to use an outside company to audit their procedures. The audit was conducted by UtiliWorks Consulting, LLC. UtiliWorks began by testing 1,138 of Austin’s water meters for their accuracy.
In the audit, released Wednesday during the Public Utilities Committee meeting, suggestions were offered for fixing the areas with lower than average accuracy rates. UtiliWorks said further analysis is needed for those meter readers and Austin Water should consider plans for automating the meter infrastructure. Additionally they suggested that Austin Water test their meter accuracy equipment annually. They also suggest that Austin Water document, train and require all meter exchange technicians to follow the same standard set of procedures.
Council Member Ellen Troxclair says Austin Water’s meter reading accuracy doesn’t tell the full story, speaking about the 1.3 percent of meter reads in the audit considered to be “discrepant.”
“When I looked at the report, and you see the number of discrepancies is only 1.3 percent, that doesn’t sound like a lot. But you have to know what to compare it to. And what I realized that I should be comparing it to is the standard that’s outlined in our contract, which stipulates that we shouldn’t have more than 1 inaccurate read per 1,000 meter reads. And we were having a much higher rate than that,” Troxclair said. “If you look at the total meters city wide, we’re talking about thousands and thousands, you know, 6-7,000 meters that are possibly being read incorrectly, which is a lot of homeowners, and a lot of people, and a lot of real money to them.”
During the summer of 2015 thousands of Austin residents said they received extremely high water bills, especially residents in the southwest section of town. Homes that typically used 2,000 gallons every month were getting charged for 13,000.
Barbara Lorimor is one of them, saying she was charged for using 19,000 gallons of water one month when typically, she’d use about 22,000 in a whole year.
“I want to be reimbursed. For this overage of what they say I’ve been using. I would like to be reimbursed for my time that it has taken me to copy everything, to sit on phones with people, to sit on hold, with taking pictures. I would like an apology,” Lorimor told KXAN. “If this was my fault, if I had used this amount of water, I’d have paid the bill and that would have been the end of it. But I complained because I didn’t use the water.”
“Some people really did have leaks, some people were using their sprinkler more than they thought, but there are still a large number of people, in my opinion, who have unexplained high bills,” Troxclair said.
Utility officials said they thought the increase in water usage was due to a long stretch of dry weather following all of the rain received in May and June and they didn’t believe there was a systemic error. In fact, Austin Water conducted an audit of its meter reading system in 2014 and said out of 1,300 meters examined only six had errors.
“We worked with nearly 24,000 customers to go over their bills in detail. The vast majority were satisfied by the conversation, but some wanted additional investigation. After those were conducted, we resolved nearly all issues,” said Vice President of Customer Account Management at Austin Energy Kelly-Diaz in a statement. “We appreciate the cooperation of customers during this difficult period.”
In November, the Austin Public Utilities Committee asked for a new audit to see what went wrong over the summer. As part of this audit the committee also asked for recommendations on how to provide financial relief for those customers who saw the high water bills.
“We will continue to go over that data with Austin Energy and see where there can be improvements made to make the system even more accurate than it is,” Austin Water spokesperson Jason Hill said.
But it’s an accuracy many, like Lorimor, still question.
“Where did 19,000 gallons of water go?” Lorimor said. “I don’t’ have any answers. They can’t give me any answers.”
Council Member Troxclair says she is in the process of gathering more information, including further review of the audit, to put forward a policy change that will protect responsible customers from carrying the burden of the high bills. Austin Water has maintained all along there were no system-wide failures, and stands behind the results of the audit.