Austin Water on the hot seat

The City of Austin tackled the sudden spike in water bills on Wednesday. Allowing residents to go face-to-face with Austin Water, putting the utility in the hot seat.

Within the last few weeks, Austin Water Utility has received more than 1,000 calls from across the city, all in regards to high water bills. For that reason, the Public Utilities Committee is demanding a larger investigation be done.

From one customer to the next, the message is clear. 

"It says that I used 23,600 gallons of water. One person and a cat," says Keith Hutchison, Northeast Austin resident.
 
They want answers.
 
That's why the Public Utilities Committee, comprised of some of Austin's council members, added billing issues to their agenda Wednesday. It brought out dozens of frustrated residents. Some that came to listen, others that came to speak.
 
"I don't like having to take my time out of the day to come here and argue about foolish things. I mean if you're overcharged, you know you're overcharged and I'm being overcharged. Apparently so are 999 other people," says Hutchison.
 
Keith Hutchison showed us his water usage over the last twelve months. In July there was a small spike, then in August it shot through the roof. 
 
"Obviously it was a mistake. 23,600 gallons of water is enough water to fill an enormous size swimming pool - seven feet deep," says Hutchison.
 
Council Member Don Zimmerman pointed out several possible factors leading to the high water bills. 
 
"It looks to me that it's impossible to read it (meter). So I don't know where the readings are coming from because the screen is so badly obscured and damaged," says Don Zimmerman, Austin City Council, District 6. 
 
Austin Water says some meters are older than others and will be replaced, but it is not the sole reason behind the spike.
 
"Overall data shows that there has been a spike in overall water usage. That's one factor. Another factor is two neighborhoods, Lost Creek and River Place, are on our tiered rate system. It's a drastic tiered rate system, meaning the more you use, the more you pay. They both came on line at the end of 2014. This is the first Summer they're seeing it," says Jason Hill, Austin Water Utility. 
 
Other factors mentioned are the dryer than normal Summer months, possible leaks in homes and outdoor irrigation. 
 
Austin Water has authorized overtime for staff to check irrigation systems for concerned customers. Thirty-three audits have been completed and 84 are scheduled. 
 
"We want our customers to have confidence in our system. So if an adjustment needs to be made on a bill, it will be made on a bill," says Hill.
 
It has been requested that Austin Water have an outside audit of their billing system. 
 
Austin Water and Austin Energy have formed a joint response team to handle billing issues. If you're needing help, call 512-494-9400, or email CustomerCare@COAutilities.com.
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