Prop A gets its first customers

First there was this:

Council Members Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District D) and Mary Nan Huffman (District G) joined Council Member Amy Peck (District A) to submit notice to the City’s Agenda Office to place an item on the City Council Agenda.

This is the first time council members submitted an ordinance to the agenda after the historic City Charter change by voters in the last election. The item is now in the process for review by the Legal Department.

Council Members Peck, Evans-Shabazz, and Huffman prioritized water bill relief as the first item to be placed on the agenda after hearing from Houstonians who are rightfully frustrated. Houston Public Works often estimates water usage and back-bills customers after the meter is read. This proposed ordinance change would prohibit the Department from correcting bills where the error occurred over three months prior unless the correction is in the customer’s favor. The current practice of being able to look back up to two years often resulted in customers being charged thousands of dollars. Although the Department recently started adopting this new policy, the ordinance would codify this change and ensure that the policy is being applied on every bill. There has not been consistency in this practice.

“Now that council members can place items on the agenda, I intend to offer items like this that make a real difference to people,” said Council Member Peck. “People came to us with a problem, and now we have the ability to fix it. This is how government should work.”

Council Member Evans-Shabazz said, “I am deeply gratified that the first application of our new charter amendment will directly address the concerns of our residents struggling with exceptionally high water bills. This action not only aligns with the core intent of the amendment but also embodies its spirit, offering hope and relief to our community members.”

Council Member Huffman added, “This measure codifies existing policy and will provide residents with meaningful consistency as we prepare to transition to a new administration. Residents of Houston should not be penalized for the city’s error. The amendment we proposed today will cap billing overages resulting from malfunctioning city equipment and will also incentivize Houston Public Works to make sure that their meters are functioning properly.”

That was on Tuesday afternoon. It was followed a couple of hours later by this.

Please attribute the following statement to Mayor Sylvester Turner.

“Over the last few months, Houston Public Works and the City of Houston Legal Department have worked on comprehensive changes to our Municipal Code of Ordinances to address the issue of high water bills. This extensive array of regulatory and process improvements is designed to bring customer relief. My administration will present the proposed changes to City Council in the coming weeks with a target date of December 6, 2023.”

The Chron takes it from there.

High water charges have emerged as a flash point issue at City Hall as some customers have reported huge spikes in their bills, sometimes more than $1,000.

In many cases, the Houston Public Works estimates water usage and back-charges after reading residents’ meters, but that can take time.

Houston’s water meters automatically transmit household usage to the city’s server wirelessly. But aging meters and slow replacements have caused the number of malfunctioning devises in a given month to more than double from 36,800 in 2020, to 91,000 in March, according to Public Works data.

The problems led to extra charges for water customers and a flood of complaints in the departments bill dispute system.

Campos had been following this story, which involved a bit of contretemps between Mayor Turner and KPRC reporter Amy Davis, and which now goes in the books as the first Council-placed item on an agenda. If this is the norm, then Prop A (which I did ultimately vote for, despite my previously expressed reservations) will turn out well. If not, well, at least it got off to a good start.

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