Austin's Utilities Brace for Busy Billing Season
"If the water goes through the meter, you bought it. If electricity goes through the meter, you bought it."
The summer of 2015 was a wet one. After years of blistering drought, the lakes and creeks of Central Texas were bursting at the seams. And then: A May of torrential downpours and a soggy June gave way to a considerably drier end of summer. August in particular, recalled Austin Energy spokesperson Robert Cullick, was one of the highest months of water use ever – bested only by the 2011 drought that petrified the region.
Thousands of Austin Water Utility customers were floored when they got their bills later that summer. In August and September, media reports swirled with residents claiming the utility was overcharging them for the service. In early September 2015 the Chronicle spoke to homeowners whose bills ballooned seemingly overnight. It had some questioning whether the utility was running an honest business.
"We're concerned about elderly neighbors or others who may not be paying close attention," one resident told the Chronicle at the time. "Case-by-case is unacceptable for what appears to be a widespread community issue, and it is shocking that the city has taken no proactive action or [offered] communication on this. I was told I will be subject to late fees and that I have to pay the amount and will receive a credit in the future if I'm due one. This now feels like a scam."
Austin Energy handles billing for various city departments, including Austin Water. The utility fiercely denied any wrongdoing, and pointed to different explanations for the high bills, including a leak on one property. (The owner disagreed with the diagnosis.) But that didn't stop City Council from taking up the issue, and in April 2016 it approved a measure that makes certain customers eligible for credit to wash away unexplained high bills.
On its website, Austin Water touts a system that "is functioning with 98.9% accuracy." Cullick said water meters can degrade over time so that they run more slowly than they should – effectively cheating the city – but that it is extremely rare for there to be a case where a meter is overcharging the customer.
2015 was one of the utility's more challenging seasons, but it's hardly the only time the utility has had to deal with high call volumes. In a rapidly growing city, the Utility Call Center, tucked away in AE's 721 Barton Springs Rd. building, braces for the busy season this time each year.
In fiscal year 2016, the center handled 1.58 million interactions, either by phone or through the automated, self-serve system. According to the call center's process manager, Jennifer Floyd, they get the bulk of their calls for the entire year from the Tuesday after Memorial Day through Sept. 30. That's what's known as the summer rush.
Most of those, says Floyd, are service calls from college students moving in, out of, and around the city. From May until mid-June there are a lot of calls for service disconnects because of the students leaving for the summer. Later on in the summer, students move back into town, and the call center is inundated with start requests.
The utility aims to answer all calls within 90 seconds, and is generally able to do that in 85-90% of cases. That number drops during the summer, Cullick admits, though there have been efforts to beef up staff. Council added 45 positions to the agency last year. It also hires temporary staff to deal with the influx. Keeping up with 460,000 customers would be difficult even if the entire call center wasn't locally sourced.
Besides disconnects and starts, the next most common call is about – you guessed it – high water bills. If you call in to discuss an abnormally high bill, the representative will take you through a series of questions to determine what could be causing the problem. Toilets and faucets are the some of the first things you'll be asked to check out. There's a red food coloring test they can walk you through to check if a leaky toilet is the culprit. But finding the problem isn't always so simple.
Cullick knows a thing or two about high water bills. Once he opened one for $2,500, only to find out he'd been unintentionally watering his neighbor's yard. Because his house sits on a hill, the water didn't pool anywhere on his property, and he had no idea he was accidentally boosting the lushness of the garden next door – that is, until he got a bill that made his jaw drop. He finally looked over at his neighbor's yard down the hill with a critical eye.
"It was like Eden," he laughed. "Literally, there's fig trees."
High water bills are usually the first alert that something is wrong in your home. There are times when a leak might be obvious, but in other cases – like Cullick's – circumstances are such that the first hint of a problem comes with an eye-popping bill.
In another case – this time on the energy side – he said he remembers a young woman who called in saying that the electricity bill for her new apartment was way too high. There was no way she could have used so much electricity, she claimed multiple times. After the standard troubleshooting, Austin Energy technicians discovered that someone, likely the landlord, was getting her to pay for the electricity of multiple units.
Cullick said once water or electricity registers on the meters, it can no longer be used by other residents, and must therefore be paid for – by someone. In the case of the young woman, he said, the Austin Tenants' Council was involved to resolve the issue.
"The first thing people need to know is that the city's responsibility stops at the meter," Cullick said. "If the water goes through the meter, you bought it. If electricity goes through the meter, you bought it. That's just the standard service agreement."
When someone does have an unusually high water bill, they call into the Utility Contact Center, where a crew of 141 locally based customer service representatives field questions. "We run through the gamut," said Floyd. "We talk about their irrigation system. How often are they running their irrigation system? Do you put it on? Or does it automatically turn on? Do you know the cadence in which it does that? The hour and time frame in which it does that?"
Cullick recalled one customer who refused to believe the utility wasn't overcharging him on his bill. After an audit of the man's landscape irrigation system, the utility found the customer had unknowingly been watering his yard multiple days a week in the middle of the night, more or less drowning it. "If you have a home that has a landscape irrigation system, you've got to go check that," Cullick warned. "Those things can use an enormous amount of water."
Those common mishaps can be found on the utility's website. There's an entire page dedicated to helping people who've been shocked by an unusually high bill. It includes links to pages with information about conserving water and advice for how to check for leaks. The site notes that while the utility is responsible for maintaining water mains in the service area, "property owners are responsible for the service lines past the meter (private side) and internal plumbing."
It also contains information to help residents with high water bills to seek adjustments. Those who fit certain criteria can be granted a credit for half of the charges above their normal usage. In those cases, the remaining balance will be adjusted to a discount rate.
Floyd said there are callers who simply forget to factor in filling up their swimming pools for the summer, which can cost a significant amount of money. Cullick noted that water in swimming pools can evaporate by a quarter of an inch per day. People should take that into consideration when looking at their bills.
In general, Cullick said that one of the best things people can do is actually pay attention to their bill. Utility bills are rolled into one so that AE can process and collect them. Take apart high bills, Cullick said, to first determine where the unexpected cost is coming from. He also suggested that residents prepare for the coming summer months by downloading the AE app, which can track electricity usage by month, week, day, and even by 15-minute segments. Water meters currently don't have that capacity, although the city has been working on a pilot program that would install new smart meters.
"For electricity, get your app," Cullick reiterated. "For water, the single biggest thing they can do is check their toilets, check their faucets. Please, please, please check if you have an irrigation system."