Investigation: Austin Water customer disputes case in administrative hearing

Austin Water gave a customer, who claimed to have been overcharged on two bills, a 50% credit. Her fight isn't over yet. She still wants the rest of her money back.

Austin Water has received more than 10,000 high-bill complaints since August. At last check, around 2,100 cases had been resolved and closed.

Many customers are now attending administrative hearings to dispute their cases.

Fran Werner says it's not about the money; it's about holding Austin Water accountable.

"What if this happens again? Nobody can account for why it happened to start with," says Fran Werner, Austin Water customer.
She and her husband have lived in their Bell Mountain home since October of 1993 and have never had a problem - until now. Normally their water bill averages from $12.00 to $19.00 a month. It jumped to a whopping $319.00 in August, then $170.00 in September.

In October, Fran wrote a customer service representative explaining the situation and stated that there must have been a mistake.

"We wanted to see what the washing machine used, what the dishwasher would use, so we monitored everything for almost a week," says Werner.

As a result, Werner says they were given a credit of about $300. But she was confused as to how the utility came up with that amount. We asked Austin Water to explain - in which they responded with:
Our policy for the administrative adjustment calculation is to forgive 50-percent of the "excess" usage and bill the other 50-percent at the cost of residential water.

"That implies that they feel that we're owed, or they feel that there was an overage of 100-percent right? Or whatever it is. If they're willing to give you back 50-percent, then they're kind of admitting that there's another 50-percent there," says Werner.

Werner then made a formal request for an administrative hearing. It took place about a week ago at the City of Austin Utility Customer Service Center. FOX 7 met her and her husband there.

"It's the right thing to do, to protest, because they can't just arbitrarily charge you and get away with it," says Werner.

The Werner's say they met with a City of Austin representative and an independent contractor. Paperwork given to them from Austin Water that day stated their position, which reads:
"The customer is responsible for City of Austin utility service provided on the customer's side of the point of delivery. The customer received continuous water and wastewater service during the service period in dispute. No leaks, metering issues or billing errors were found. Customer has no pool and no irrigation system."

But the mediator asked them the same questions again.

"Did you have a water leak? Did you hand-water plants? Did you use a sprinkler or even a hand-held sprinkler? Did you use this, that and the other thing? We said, 'No, we haven't done anything differently,'" says Werner.

Council Member Don Zimmerman went with one of his constituents to a hearing last month. The first thing he noticed was that very few questions were being asked to the city, so he made sure to point that out.

"Probably the most important factor when we're talking about accuracy, reliability of your meter reading, is who read the meter? When exactly was it read? Which individual read the meter? Is this an individual of a record of accuracy? Is this a relatively new person? Has that person changed several times?" says Council Member Don Zimmerman, City of Austin, District 6.

Zimmerman believes the high turnover of meter readers at the beginning of the Summer may have led to the spike.

"The meters were not being reliably read because we had new people - didn't know how to use the systems, couldn't find the meters. So we fell behind and I think what happened, was we had some catch-up readings that happened in August and September," says Zimmerman.

Werner is still waiting for a response from Austin Water. Her hope is that this doesn't happen again.

"For it to have happened to everybody in the same month and to say that we had a drought or we had rain is not an adequate explanation," says Werner.

Around the same time thousands of customers saw a water bill spike, the Public Utilities Committee ruled against Austin Water for overcharging four wholesale MUD customers.

Zimmerman says the City of Austin legal department is trying to push ahead with an appeal of the decision, without consulting city council. They are hoping to tackle that at an upcoming PUC meeting.

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