The City of Austin has accepted $100,000 to settle a lawsuit against a meter-reading contractor whose rogue employees spiked the water bills of thousands of Austin residents in 2017.
The settlement falls short of the roughly $140,000 that Austin Energy refunded to 7,400 customers who were overcharged because of the bad readings. The settlement also did not defray all of the expense of the lengthy investigation launched by the city when customer complaints poured into Austin Energy’s water utility division.
And as a result of the actions of two employees of Corix Utilities, now Tribus Services, city water customers are paying between $400,000 and $500,000 a year for meter readers with the current contractor, Bermex Inc., to provide photos of every reading they take, as The Texas Monitor reported in April 2018.
However, Andy Perny, division chief of the city’s Law Department, called the settlement “a reasonable compromise of the city’s claim for costs.” In a statement to The Texas Monitor, he said the settlement “covered all refunds of costs paid to Corix for the incorrect meter reads. It also covered direct costs of printing and postage associated with customer notifications.”
The overbilling may have been tied to a decision by the Austin City Council in May 2017 to replace Corix with Bermex for $3.5 million a year. Corix told the Texas Workforce Commission the company intended to lay off 49 of its meter readers by the end of August of that year.
Customers inundated Austin Energy with complaints that their normal August charges were followed in September by billings for hundreds of dollars.
In spite of more than 17,000 complaints, Austin Energy insisted that its method of meter reading made it virtually impossible to produce so many distorted bills.
On Jan. 21, 2018, Austin Energy general manager Jackie Sargent issued an apology. Two of the soon-to-be-laid-off meter readers, it seems, had decided not to do readings at all but to hack into the city’s billing system and enter made up readings.
Not only should the utility have identified the problem sooner, but it should have been more responsive to customer complaints, Sargent said.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].