It's happening again: big spikes in Austin Water bills affecting customers across the city

O.T. Greer has lived on Aspen Street since 1973. 

He and some of his neighbors saw a big spike in their water bills last month.

"There's no way that I used 19,100 gallons," he said.

"During the summer months Austin typically uses a lot more water than normal," said David Anders, Assistant Director of Financial Services for Austin Water.

Anders says if a customer has issues with a bill they usually ask them some basic questions to start off with. "If they have an irrigation system, if there's any leaks, if they have a pool, if they filled up any pools, those kinds of questions to just investigate more.  But clearly sometimes there are meter issues and if it seems like the read that we did get uploaded into the billing system is incorrect then we'll usually send somebody out."

Greer points out half of his yard is zero-scaping.  The part that is grass he waters by hand.

Greer also says in September the city came out to fix a leak under the street.  But he doesn't think that's the issue since his neighbors are having the same problem.

Greer showed us his last two bills.  He says the August bill for about $21 should have been more and the September bill should have been a lot less than $214. "If you add the two together then it's about 50 something dollars that I've overpaid as far as I'm concerned," Greer said.

Greer paid the bills but wrote Austin Water about what he thought he should have paid.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair has been fighting this issue since she's been in office. 

She points to an audit that showed some meters across the city were being misread.

And she says the billing system charges customers more per gallon when they use more water. "That complicates things when you have a leak or when you have a misread because you're extra penalized by being charged that extra rate," she said. 

Troxclair helped get a refund program going at Austin Water.  Customers with an unexplained spike 3 times that of their previous bill can fill out paperwork and get some of that money back if they're eligible.  And she's bringing an item to council soon that will beef that up.

"The current program can give you up to a 70% discount because that's the level that the water utility was comfortable with at the time.  Seeing the continued problem, my resolution would allow people to get up to a 100% discount," she said.

Austin Water says customers with high bills should call the Austin Energy call center listed on the bill.  They may get assigned a case number.

"Our message would be...make sure you call and inform the city of those issues so that we can begin to look at them because there could be some particular issues that arise in certain areas," Anders said.

"I'm willing to pay my fair share of what I use but when I see something like that and I put 2 and 2 together something's not right," Greer said.

Council Member Alison Alter has been helping constituents with the same problem. 

Her office sent FOX 7 this statement:

"Council Member Alter has been actively involved in addressing constituent concerns regarding recent spikes in their water bills. After an influx of correspondence from a neighborhood near Mt. Bonnell, our office worked as a liaison between residents and the utilities to mitigate the issue. Our office prudently documented cases of irregular and exponential increases in water usage, and reported to Austin Energy the apparent pattern of affected homes in terms of location. As a result of our office’s engagement in this issue, Council Member Alter successfully brought awareness to the billing anomalies, resulting in overuse credits of 100 percent for over 80 constituents. 

Our office first began receiving billing concerns from the Edgemont area towards the end of September. Increases in water bills are common in late summer months as a result of high water usage, even if the resident is unaware of their increased consumption. However, the water bills in this area were repeatedly several times higher than they had been during the same billing period the year before. For example, multiple residents reported bill spikes of over $1,000 and meter readings of more than 100,000 gallons of water for a single month.

After receiving a high volume of calls and emails about unexpected water bills, our office recognized a geographically-concentrated trend in the concerns and reached out to Austin Energy’s billing and escalation team, since they oversee billing operations for Austin Water. Shortly after discussions with Austin Energy, Austin Water informed our office that they were still investigating this issue, and that it appeared the Edgemont area had experienced a significant level of transmission main isolation work, unexpected pressure changes, and large valve manipulations. This activity was found to be correlated with the high volume of excess water use concerns. As a result, Austin Water issued a 100 percent credit to customers in the area whose usage increased by 25 percent or more from the same billing period last year."

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