City of Austin utility agencies issue apology for high water bills, announce plans to credit customers affected

Austin Water publicly issued an apology Jan. 31 for unexplained high water bills.

Austin Water publicly issued an apology Jan. 31 for unexplained high water bills.

Austin Water and Austin Energy apologized Wednesday morning after discovering meter reading errors for over 7,000 customers throughout the city.

Customers throughout the city complained about unexplained high water bills in September 2017 after receiving relatively low bills in August 2017.

In a press conference streamed through Fox 7, agency officials confirmed the unusual pattern in high water bills and issued an apology to all customers.

“Today, we are here to apologize to those customers and we are here to acknowledge their instincts about their water usage patterns,” said Jackie Sargent, Austin Energy general manager. “After a lengthy and in-depth investigation, we have the data to confirm that customers’ usage patterns were unusual, lower in August and higher in September. We are here to announce what we plan to do to respond to this situation and our commitment to improving customer service for all of our customers.”

Greg Meszaros, Austin Water director, echoed a similar sentiment adding the city's committment to accuracy, especially with a tiered water system.

“Austin Water has a tiered-rate structure, which bills more for more water that you use, so accurate meter readings, billing and water-use tools are very critical for our customers and we are committed to taking all the steps for that [accuracy] to happen into the future.”

Remedying the situation

Kerry Overton, deputy general manager and chief customer and compliance officer for Austin Energy, said the city has identified administrative process changes to help improve the accuracy of meter readings and data management. The entity has also identified a financial solution and implemented a system that will issue refunds for overcharged customers.

  • Overton said at this point, every meter reading will be immediately photographed.
    “This is crucial because it will also show us the GPS positioning of the meter reader and it will also give us one additional indication for back-up to confirm the read that went into our system,” Overton said.

  • The city will begin adjusting bills for 7,400 customers if their September usage exceeded their August usage. This will be done by "smoothing," or averaging of two months worth of bills. If smoothing results in a  reduction of a customer's total bill over those two months, the city will issue a credit for the difference.

  • Drema Gross, division manager at Austin Water, said the average credit for the 7,400 customers who will receive adjustments is around $20. Around 700 of those customers whose bill was three times higher their historical usage will be notified of additional remedies they may be eligible for, including the high-water bill administrative adjustment.

“We should’ve found this problem faster and we should’ve had systems and procedures in place to alert us of this issue sooner,” Sargent said. “We are committed to an improvement in customer service. Correct billing, excellent customer service and accurate data are all things customers should expect. These are things I expect. We apologize to those impacted by the situation and we hold ourselves accountable for improving our process so this does not happen again.”