After a detailed investigation into questions raised by residential water customers from across the city, the City of Austin has found problems in the way that some customers were assessed for water in August and September 2017. The pattern makes it appear that late-summer water use was abnormally low in August and overly concentrated in September.
“We should have found this faster and we should have found it ourselves. We should have had better safeguards against unreasonable water meter reads,” said Jackie Sargent, General Manager of Austin Energy. Austin Energy manages the metering and billing for all City utilities, including water. “We apologize to those affected by this anomaly and we hold ourselves accountable for improving our processes so that they do not recur. Customers must have confidence that their utility bills are measured and billed accurately.”
“We are working with Austin Water and have put in place additional protections that will provide more data when there are questions about a water bill. For example, since Monday, meter reading technicians have begun photographing each and every residential water meter reading, well over 200,000 per month,” Sargent said. “And there is more that we can do and are doing.”
While validating water meter readings with photographs takes additional time and costs more money, at this time it is necessary to create a visual record of each meter read. These pictures can be used as a reference point by bill analysts if a customer has a question about their metered usage.
Sargent said she appreciated customers who brought their concerns to City of Austin Utilities, and is troubled that some said they felt that customer representatives questioned them unnecessarily about their water use. “I started my utility career in customer service nearly 30 years ago, and to this day, I am passionate about providing exceptional customer service. The concerns shared by some of our customers tell a different story, a situation which I am committed to address.”
City of Austin Utilities has identified administrative process changes, which can help improve the accuracy of the metering reading and data management. “We are taking steps now that we hope will address some of the concerns our customers have raised about their bills,” said Kerry Overton, Deputy General Manager and Chief Customer and Compliance Officer of Austin Energy. “City of Austin Utilities is dedicated to working with each and every customer to help resolve their issues.”
To help affected customers, the City of Austin will provide bill credits if smoothing (i.e., averaging) water use between August and September will result in a lower bill. That was found to be the case for approximately 7,400 customers. The bills credits due to smoothing are not large, averaging approximately $20 and not exceeding $80 in most instances. The total credit to these customers will be in the range of $138,000.
In some other instances, customers with high water consumption not explained by the low-August/high-September pattern will be eligible for a High Volume Water Bill Administrative Adjustment. City of Austin Utilities will contact these customers as well.
Here are the results of the investigation:
The pattern of low-August/high-September usage is not explained by weather, as most of August was generally a hot, dry period followed by a cooler September.
The pattern of low-August/high-September was found clustered on 135 of 1,080 meter-reading routes.
Of the roughly 32,000 residential customers along these routes, approximately 7,400 were charged more for the two-month period than if their use had been equally spread across the months, and will see a bill credit as a result of the smoothing process.
The pattern occurred at a time of transition between two vendors that read City water meters. The September readings were read by the new vendor, Bermex. The August reads were conducted by Corix Utilities.
City of Austin Utilities will send a letter to affected customers by Feb. 15. These letters will also notify approximately 700 customers who had significantly higher September use than in previous years and who may qualify for an additional High Bill Administrative Adjustment if their elevated use was unintended or unexplained. The City encourages customers with the low-August/high-September pattern to wait until Feb. 28 to receive a letter. In the adjustment of customer bills, late fees will be waived, or reversed, if already assessed. The City anticipates that all eligible customer credits will be applied to bills by March 15.
To discover the cause of the problem, City of Austin Utilities has been in discussions with the vendor then under contract to read water meters, Corix Utilities. Corix’s contract expired August 2017.
The City’s investigation of what happened continues. “We are not at the end of our review and analysis. We are focused on customers and we have enough information to acknowledge the problem and adjust customers’ bills,” Sargent said. “We are committed to completing this review as quickly as possible.”
Greg Meszaros, Director of Austin Water agrees. “Restoring confidence in the meter reading system is critical,” said Meszaros. “We apologize to our customers, and we are taking all the necessary steps to improve the process and make things right.”
The utilities continue to review and implement process and performance improvements to customer service, metering, data management and quality assurance.