HOUSTON – Getting a water bill for hundreds of dollars more than what you usually owe can be shocking. Water customers tell us they’ve done nothing different; and they don’t have any leaks. It is just one of the problems leaving customers DRAINED.
Investigative reporter Amy Davis is asking the city what it’s doing to get to the bottom of these unusually large, unexplained bills.
KPRC 2 ‘DRAINED’ Investigation is looking into water bill issues
Amy has spoken with dozens of customers who are floored when they get one of these bills that show they have used tens of thousands of gallons of water in just one month. No one is immune -- not even city council members.
While they spend hours each week making major decisions for the City of Houston, elected city council members are first taxpaying citizens. It was Nov. 16 when councilmember Mary Nan Huffman expressed her concerns over high water bills in District G.
“We have constituents calling all the time, wondering why their water bills are so high,” Huffman said.
Then, on her very next water bill she knew exactly how they felt.
“I opened my mail, and I was surprised because my water bill is usually around $200, and it was $896,” she said.
$896 for 36,000 gallons of water in one month. That was more than three times Huffman’s average usage of 11,000 gallons. Huffman filed a complaint with the water department.
“They investigated to see whether or not there was a leak. Ultimately, they determined it was just an unusually large water bill and it was corrected,” she explained.
Any water customer can apply for an unusually large bill adjustment. A single-family residential customer may get only one credit adjustment in a 12-month period for unexplained usage over 200% of their average usage.
[RELATED: We show you how to fight a water bill]
But council member Huffman’s meter *did* show she used 36,000 gallons. We wanted to know why.
“Not determined,” she told us.
We asked the City of Houston what it’s doing to find out why meters are registering more water than what citizens without a leak could possibly use. One water department employee told me by phone since the meter shows the amount of water that flows into the customer’s home it is the customer’s responsibility to figure out where that water went.
In a statement sent by the city this week, they told us:
“Customer Account Services follows city code for unusually large bill applications. It includes testing the meter for accuracy and the review of the customer’s billing history.”
However, the code doesn’t require “testing the meter for accuracy.”
The exact language reads, “investigation shall include inspection of the customer’s water meter for accuracy and review of the customer’s billing record.”
The distinction is significant. An actual real test of your water meter requires removing it and taking it to a lab. Inspecting the water meter is a visual inspection that simply means re-reading the meter to make sure the numbers on the meter match what is on the customer’s bill. We asked a Houston Public Works spokesperson to clarify this; but they did not respond before this story was published.
And not everyone gets that unusually large bill adjustment
When KPRC 2 Investigative producer Andrea Slaydon contested a $922 bill last summer, the city denied her request because it was only 175% more than her average usage by their calculations. [The bill immediately went back to a normal range, and she has not received another high bill. There was no leak found and no answers to why the bill was so high.]
We also asked Houston Public Works if there is an allowable error rate of meters that give unusually large readings. Here’s what they sent us:
“Customer Account Services does not have an acceptable error rate. Our team provides more than 480,000 utility bills every month and maintains a 99.2% accuracy rating. We are working to achieve 100% by tackling aging infrastructure, improving human performance and taking steps to eliminate meter reading estimates. Customer Account Services added system and internal controls to minimize billing errors. We are replacing Automated Meter Reading Infrastructure and procuring a third-party meter reading contract to meet the rising demand.”