Water bill ills

CITY OF HOUSTON FLAGHOUSTON – It seemed like a good idea at the time for Houston Aldermen to average water bills for city residents.

But 26 water customers – some with water bills for several hundred dollars — attended last week’s city board meeting and got the city to backtrack on the plan.
“We made the decision to do it last fall in an effort to try and save the city some money,” Mayor Stacey Parker told the crowd. “The holidays, the coldest weather we have had in a long time and other factors caught up with us. In hind-sight it wasn’t the best thing to do and we are trying to help and make things right from here on out.”

Parker said the city was down to one meter reader last fall and the decision was made to read meters once a quarter. Residents were billed for their average water usage for the previous months of 2013 and when meters were read in January and February the difference was put on bills.

Sharon Atkinson spoke for the group and said she didn’t feel it was right to make that decision without consulting customers.

“I’ve got two jobs and I pay my bills,” said Atkinson. “My concern are those elderly residents who may be on fixed income. There is no way they can pay some of these water bills.”

Parker said when the city learned of the problem it began keeping notes on each customer’s bill.

“I would say 80 percent of the high bills were due to broken pipes or people leaving water on during the cold weather to keep pipes from freezing,” said Parker. “We also had the holidays with people cooking and more people in the house using the shower and toilet.”

Atkinson said it has been reported that water bills could go up if the city goes to electronic meters.

“We’ve got problems with water pressure in the Gladney Subdivision and other neighborhoods,” said Atkinson. “We need to know what is going on and not be surprised by a bill.”

Parker said the city is looking to upgrade meters and has applied for a grant, but that project has not been finalized.

“The electronic meters will give a more accurate reading and you will probably see your bill go up,” said Parker. “The old meters actually are not as accurate.”

Alderman Barry Springer said the state has a law that prevents aldermen from changing water bills. City attorney Elizabeth Ausbern said cities are not allowed to reduce bills unless it can be proved the meter read incorrectly.

City Public Works Director Ricko Nichols said the city is responsible for getting residents clean water and property owners are responsible for maintenance of pipes from the meter to the faucet. He said the city is always glad to re-read meters and replace those that might be a problem.

“I have told our city workers that every meter in this town will be read every month,” said Parker. “If that means they have to stop other jobs to do that – so be it.”

Parker said the city has a policy of allowing high water bills to be paid over time. Parker said residents with a $300 bill would be given three months to pay their bill and those will bills over $300 would be given additional time.

Aldermen have repeatedly denied residents reduced water bills when they have approached the board in the past.

“We have an old water system and I’ve got to say this board is trying hard to upgrade it and make it better,” said Nichols. “I would like to point out while the cost of everything we used at the water department – from pipe to chlorine and from tools to employee pay – has gone up, your water rates have not gone up.”

Houston residents pay $10 for the first 3,000 gallons of water used, $10 for sewer service on that amount and an additional $12 for garbage pickup.

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