Environment

Estimated Water Bills Catch Up With Houston Residents Months Later

After a year, Bedina Houston has finally settled the string of undercharged bills she received from the city.
Photo by Faith Bugenhagen
After a year, Bedina Houston has finally settled the string of undercharged bills she received from the city.
Bedina Houston, a resident of Woodlands Trial North, wakes up with the sunrise every day to water the container gardens she has in her backyard.

Despite having nearly an acre of property, Bedina said she usually “gives up” keeping her grass green and other plants alive when temperatures rise.

So, when Bedina was hit with a $574.14 water bill in April, she knew something was wrong.

“It has been so frustrating. It took me eight to nine months to get my water bill straightened out – hopefully it is now – and that was with me calling repeatedly,” Bedina said. “Not once did Houston Public Works call me back, like I was told it was me doing their legwork for them.”

Bedina first noticed an issue in November 2022, as her water bills started decreasing from her usual monthly charge of about $150 to fewer than $60. She was billed for 1,000 gallons of water usage, while her household – including six of her family members – usually used between 6,000 to 8,000 gallons in a month.

These undercharges came from bills marked as “estimated,” which indicated that the city was not charging Bedina based on actual reads taken from her water meter. Instead, these estimates were calculated using the average of her household's previous usage.

Erin Jones, Public Information Officer at Houston Public Works, said estimates could undercharge customers because the department uses the previous year's average, which doesn't account for possible drought conditions or up to date water rate increases.

According to the department, there are several ways that water meter readings are collected. This includes automatic fixed network reads, picking up meter readings from mobile van units or having crew members read meters manually.

In the case that a water meter reading device is damaged or old – past its "end of life," the department will likely estimate a customer's water bill.

The number of malfunctioning meter reading devices increased from 91,000 in March to roughly 112,500 in August. Subsequently, the demand for manual readings has risen from 20 percent to 22.4 percent of customers. Jones said the department is working with a contractor to have enough crew to keep up with this increase, as it is still recovering from staffing shortages.

Once Bedina realized that the city was underestimating the amount of water her household used, she called Houston Public Works to send someone out to do a manual read.  In the interim, Bedina continued to pay her bills adding in the difference of her household's usual monthly water charge. These additional payments allowed her to collect a credit on her account.

Bedina did this to avoid a high water bill that she thought would come after the manual meter read. She expected the department to bill her as if the number of gallons on the reading device was the amount she owed within the month – not her household’s overall water consumption.

After nearly five months of waiting, the Houston Public Works crew came out in April to read her meter. As she expected, the bill for that month totaled $574.14, which equated to roughly 28,000 gallons of water consumed.
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The city overcharged Bedina Houston, and expected her to pay the total number of gallons used during multiple months that she was receiving estimated bills in a single month.
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Because of the credit Bedina built on her account, she only owed $223.24 of the total bill.

Mark Fairchild, a resident of Rice Military and president of the Rice Military Civic Club, found himself in the same situation. Fairchild was receiving estimated bills billing him lower – $45 compared to the $70 – than he would usually pay monthly.

Fairchild first detected the undercharged estimates in September 2022 while creating a document of his recent water bills to present to the city after requesting a refund for a “ridiculous” $311 bill he received in June.

Fairchild was billed this amount after Houston Public Works came out to read his meter manually. The $311 charge equates to 16,000 gallons of water used in a single month, nearly three times the usual monthly average of 5,500 gallons Fairchild and his wife use.

“When they (Houston Public Works) get around to doing their job, they penalize me because somebody finally comes and reads my meters and says, ‘Well, you consumed 16,000 gallons this month,’ and in reality, I didn’t,” he said. “That consumption was over several months in which all they were doing was estimating my meter.”

In reviewing the document, Fairchild also realized that his bills had been “all over the place” since 2021. According to Fairchild, he received either an estimated or no bill nine times between March 2021 – when they started estimating his bill – and December 2022.

Fairchild said he has heard dozens of his neighbors over the last year and a half complaining about similar issues and wondering what is happening with their water bills.

In the process of also requesting a refund, Bedina went back to her April bill and noticed that she was billed per gallon using the increased water rate that went into effect that month.

Bedina paid more than she owed, as the water usage was from before the water rate increased. She told this to those trying to help her at Houston Public Works’ Contact Center; however, they denied this.

“No one seemed to understand what I was saying. When I said new rate and old rate, it seemed to go totally over their head,” Bedina said. “They told me I didn’t know what I was talking about, that the water rates were all the same, it didn’t matter, and when I asked for a supervisor, they would get huffy with me.”

The rates Bedina referred to are two separate rates the city put in place. The first is an automatic annual increase equivalent to the population growth plus each year's inflation rate. The second increase approved in 2021 raises the base water rates yearly on April 1 through the following five years.

These two rates resulted in a water rate increase this year of 15 percent, effective in April. This total came from the annual adjustment of 9.2 percent – as the inflation rate was 8.2 percent and population growth was 1 percent – and the base water rate increase to 6 percent.

Houston City Council approved the second rate increase saying base rates were not raised in years. According to media reports from April, a consultant hired by the city initially recommended these rate increases in 2021, and said Houston Water would see its operating reserves dry up by this year without them.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner sent out a press release in June 2021, and said that the increase in rates would also generate the funds necessary to support the city's agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to address Houston's sewer system issues.

Bill King, a resident of Bayou Woods, former Mayor of Kemah and Houston mayoral candidate, said he thought the increase to the base rates was “necessary” at the time. But now, the annual adjustment rate – which used to be relatively low – poses a problem because it has been high as inflation continues to shoot up.

“We’ve had rate increases that have been 15 to 16 percent, a couple of those in a row, and all of a sudden you’re talking about the overall water rate going up 50 to 60 percent once you compound all that,” King said. “So, you take that and throw in the water meter reading issues, and you’ve got this big mess in terms of people being upset about what the water bills are saying.”

Bedina eventually connected with a Houston Public Works supervisor – whose name she does not recall – who assured her that she would receive a roughly $300 refund on her next bill.

The refund came through three months later on her August bill, but nearly half the total money Bedina was initially given was taken from her account to cover a water bill the department said she never received in May.

“I was so tired of messing with them (Houston Public Works) at this point,” Bedina said. “I said, ‘Okay, fine, as long as it’s settled now, let’s just go with it.’”

Bedina never confirmed or followed up with Houston Public Works to see if the amount she was initially overcharged was adjusted at the lower rate.
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To reduce water use, Bedina Houston created a makeshift hose that runs to the only area of her backyard she waters — her container gardens.
Photo by Faith Bugenhagen
Fairchild also received a refund he requested for his overcharged bill. However, despite sending the multi-file document outlining the under and over payments that indicated how much he was owed – $80 – he too received a lower amount back of $68.

According to Fairchild, he could not understand “the logic behind the credit” and was never provided with an explanation for why he was given back that amount of money, but he never contested it.

Like Bedina, Fairchild said he was also billed at the higher rate adopted in 2022 instead of the lower one.

“They billed me for my true consumption, but I didn’t consume it all in one month, nor did I consume it at the higher rate,” Fairchild said. “Yet they’re billing me at the higher rate than what they would have billed me if I had just been billed the appropriate bill every month.”

“There are months where you are underpaying, but the months that you are overpaying, you more than offset the amount you owed during the months that you underpaid," he said.

According to the Jones, as of February the department is no longer estimating a customer's bill for more than three months. The manual read is not considered overcharging, it's considered the actual use of water registering through the meter, so the customer is charged with what they are actually using.

Jones said a manual read is just confirming the number of gallons used.  It's not overcharging; it just means a customer is probably not getting charged for the full amount of water they're using.

Houston Public Works reported that water and wastewater rates will have gone up by approximately 78 percent overall for the average single-family home by 2026.

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Additionally, under both water rate increases, Houston Public Works reported that water and wastewater rates will have gone up by approximately 78 percent overall for the average single-family home by 2026.

Data from Houston Public Works show that the monthly water bills for single-family households that consume 3,000 gallons have increased by about $6, and the bills for single-family homes that use 4,000 gallons have shot up by $11. The difference can be more as it is contingent on how much water a household consumes.

Bedina said her utility bills have increased by at least $50 with the water rate increases alone.

Bedina’s most recent water bill from September is without error and based on an actual reading from her new meter reading device – which Houston Public Works replaced.

Fairchild has not had any recent issues with his water bills. They are no longer estimated since the department replaced his meter reading device with a new one.

According to Jones, Houston Public Works has replaced 30,000 meter reading devices between March and August to increase reading accuracy. The department will continue installing new ones as a part of a plan that aimed to swap out 50,000 old devices a year, but became backlogged due to supply chain issues experienced during COVID-19.

The department has also worked to increase the capacity of its call center, which receives about 44,200 calls per month. Data from Houston Public works show that the number of residents who call is much higher than those who follow through with the actual bill adjustment process. Which requires administrative reviews and a final consideration from the Water Adjustment Board.

This year, 244 customer escalation reviews, 86 administrative reviews, eight administrative hearings and three Water Adjustment Board evaluations have occurred. Jones said each household is only permitted to request one adjustment for an unusually large bill within any 12-month long period.

Although Houston Public Works has replaced old or damaged devices, and some residents have had their billing issues resolved, the overall percentage of incorrect water bills continues to increase.

In March, the department reported that 0.8 percent of the roughly 480,000 utility bills sent out required corrections. Meanwhile, as of August, 1.1 percent of bills needed to be fixed, resulting in about 5,620 corrections.

And the total percentage of bills based on estimates has increased too. The rise is marginal – data from March, shows 10 percent of water bills were billed based on estimated meter readings, and in August, 11 percent were.

“I just wonder how many people they’ve done the same thing to that may not understand what is happening,” Bedina said. “A lot of the time, they will work with you, but I think with everyone getting back into the office and the problems they’ve had with the supply chain and manpower – it’s just exacerbated some of the issues they already had.”