Lawyers for Austin Energy will be asking for reimbursement from a former contractor for costs incurred by two meter readers the utility says made up readings that hugely inflated water bills for 7,400 customers.
It is unclear whether or not that reimbursement will include the $400,000 to $500,000 more the utility will be spending each year to have readers for the current contractor take photos of each of the readings they take.
Kerry Overton, the utility’s deputy general manager, said this week investigators were able to pinpoint the work of two former meter readers for Corix Utilities, with headquarters in Northbrook,lll. and Vancouver, B.C., in August of 2017, according to a story in the Austin American-Statesman.
In October, when customers began to complain about the wild inflation of their bills, and for months afterward, Austin Energy doubted whether the utility or its contractor could have been at fault.
“We do not have instances of failures of water meter reading systems because it is a heavily audited system,” spokesman Robert Cullick told the Statesman at the time.
While officials for Corix did not return a contact asking for comment by The Texas Monitor, KXAN-TV in Austin reported Wednesday that a Corix spokesman issued a statement saying the company assumed the employees failed to take readings and made up numbers because they were about to lose their jobs.
In May of 2017, Austin City Council approved paying $3.5 million a year to a new contractor Bermex Inc. of Akron, Ohio. In early July, Corix notified the Texas Workforce Commission it would be laying off 49 meter readers in Austin by Aug. 25.
By October, customers complained to Austin Energy about water bills that were under $25 in August, and shot into the hundreds in September. One couple told the Statesman that Austin Energy billed them for 62,100 gallons of water, almost 25 times what they used a month before.
A month later, Austin Energy still insisted customers were responsible for their bills in spite of the thousands of complaints the utility was finding it impossible to answer.
“There’s no question the water use between June and September is correct,” Cullick told the Statesman then. “There’s the possibility the meter reads between that time are not…. We haven’t found anything that’s untoward, but it’s not clear what happened in those months.”
That posture changed with an apology from Jackie Sargent, Austin Energy’s general manager. The utility had found about 7,400 customers’ bills were wrong and it had worked out a plan to return $138,000 in overbilling to customers.
“We should have found this faster and we should have found it ourselves,” Sargent said. “We should have had better safeguards against unreasonable water meter reads. We apologize to those affected by this anomaly and we hold ourselves accountable for improving our processes so that they do not recur. Customers must have confidence that their utility bills are measured and billed accurately.”
Three weeks before the apology was issued, Corix changed the name of its utility services company to Tribus Services.
The utility, beginning in January, directed Bermex to have its readers take photos of their readings and began sending utility employees in behind the meter readers to spot check their work.
While the utility’s investigation continued, the City of Austin issued a report saying billing corrections would be completed by the middle of March.
Conceding what they had repeatedly told reporters was impossible had been done, Austin Energy officials still are not certain exactly how the two meter readers did it.
“How they did it — if they wrote July reads down and then guesstimated an August read or if they gained access to the system,” Elaine Veselka, Austin Energy’s vice president of customer accounts told the Statesman, “we don’t know.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].