City audit finds majority of water meter readings accurate

The Austin Public Utilities Committee is still trying to find out why 10,000 water customers complained about high bills last summer.

"There is no simple answer. 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, that have unexplained high bills and that's what we're hoping the audit will get to the bottom of," said Councilwoman Ellen Troxclair, District 8. 

The water meter reading and testing accuracy audit compared more than 1,100 water meters read by two different subcontractors.

Fifteen of those had a read difference of more than 500 gallons, but Austin Water said most of those resulted in customers being under billed.

The audit by UtiliWorks Consulting found that 98.9 percent of meter readings are accurate, and while that number may sound promising, when it's applied to the larger population that equates to about 3,000 meters being misread

"We're still going over the data, but the big takeaway is that there is not some catastrophic failure of the billing system or the meter reading system," said Jason Hill, spokesman for Austin Water. 

Councilwoman Troxclair wasn't convinced.

"When I looked at the report, and you see the amount of discrepancies is really 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 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.

Besides inaccurate meter readings, there were also a number of water meters that subcontractors were unable to locate and several that were foggy, scratched or otherwise unreadable.

"If you look at the total meters citywide, we're talking about thousands and thousands, 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," said Troxclair.

"When meters are not functioning correctly most of the time they're under registering. That means the bill would be lower, not higher," Hill said. 

How did that result in thousands of customers being overbilled for water last summer?

"The different reasons behind some of the discrepancies that are out there during last year didn't have to do with the billing system and were other reasons, including leaks," Hill said. 

How will city leaders make sure water customers don't fall victim to soaring bills yet again?

"If there are changes that can be made, I want to make sure that people who are otherwise responsible water users are not being put in this position of getting a water bill that is completely outrageous that they really didn't expect," said Troxclair. 

Troxclair said she will meet with the utility district to come up with a policy change that would offer some kind of one-time forgiveness to responsible water users. 

That policy change will probably be discussed during the next PUC meeting in March.

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