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austin waterAudits find Austin water billing system isn’t to blame for high bills

2:18 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016 | Filed in:

A set of audits requested after Austin water bills spiked late last summer backs up what city officials have been saying all along: The billing system isn’t to blame.

Austin Water and Austin Energy, which handles the billing for all city utilities, received thousands of calls from customers who saw dramatic increases in their water bills starting in August. For some customers, that uptick translated into bills that were hundreds of dollars higher than usual.

While utility officials said higher water use after a summer dry spell was the likely culprit, members of the Austin City Council’s Public Utilities Committee in Octoberrequested an independent review of the water bills.

Audits find Austin water billing system isn’t to blame for high bills photo

Reshma Kirpalani

Customers started complaining in August about excessively high water bills.

The findings of those audits will be presented this afternoon to that committee. Those reviews included:

1. Billing accuracy: A review by Certified Public Accounting firm Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP found no errors in the way bills were calculated. The firm picked 162 bills at random from the 1.8 million bills generated last year between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 and looked at whether the gallons billed matched the meter readings and whether the proper per-gallon rates were applied, among other things.

2. Meter-reading accuracy: Consulting firm UtiliWorks sent its own meter-readers behind the city-hired meter-readers over a span of eight days in December and January. Of the 1,138 meters read by the consultant’s crews, 981 meters (or 86.2 percent) had the same reading as those by city-hired workers. Another 142 reads (or 12.5 percent) had “a small difference in gallons that seemed consistent with the difference in time between reads,” according to a city memo. That left 1.3 percent with notable discrepancies; further review pointed to errors in keying in the numbers. (The city adjusted those erroneous bills.)

3. Meter accuracy: This month, Austin Water staff removed 30 water meters across the city and sent the meters to an independent testing facility in New Jersey. That review found 11 meters failed to meet standards, but in all cases, those meters recorded less water than was actually used, not more, according to a city memo.

In that Jan. 19 memo to the mayor and City Council, Assistant City Manager Robert Goode said the utilities have looked at the potential for leaks causing high water bills. Over the past several months, Austin Water performed leak checks on 2,085 meters and found 19 with likely leaks and 138 more with possible leaks.

Since August, Austin Water has also conducted 460 irrigation system assessments for customers who called about high water bills. Goode’s memo said that 92 percent of the systems were set to run the sprinklers on multiple days, or at multiple start times, or for “excessive run times.”

Check back for additional coverage out of the Public Utilities Committee meeting, which begins at 3 p.m.