Austin Water says it has received more than 10,000 phone calls about unusually high bills since August. So Austin City Council member Don Zimmerman proposed a solution: partial reimbursements from the city.
The only problem is, for the most part, that’s not legal.
The legality of having a city reimburse residents comes down to this: Was there a factual or procedural error in the billing? Austin Water says in these cases, there were not.
“I know people may not believe me, but that is what the data is showing,” says Greg Meszaros, director of Austin Water. He says out of the thousands of calls they received about high water bills, they ended up adjusting fewer than 10 bills – in some of those 10 exceptional cases, they found leaks. Otherwise, Texas state law says that once you owe a city money, that city government has no power to lower or cancel that debt, unless you can prove an error. Otherwise, the city can’t cut you a break.
“No, you can’t do that. Because you have to prove that there’s a problem before we can reduce the bill and I said, 'well I can’t prove there’s a problem until I get cooperation to get the proof,'” Zimmerman says.
Zimmerman and his City Council colleagues have asked Austin Water to look into a third party audit of its meter-reading system. Austin Energy, which bills for both water and electricity, is already in the process of hiring a company to audit its billing system.