Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is adding water bill reform to his to-do list as he approaches the end of his eight years in office.
Turner announced at a Monday news conference nine separate ordinance changes that will go before city council Wednesday to help water customers.
City residents have struggled in the past with being charged for estimated use of their water instead of their actual use. Some customers have seen water bills as high as $1,000. Houston Public Works typically estimates water usage and back charges after reading residents’ meters, but that process usually takes time.
Among the nine ordinance changes proposed by Turner are removals on the number of times residents can seek the city’s assistance for water leaks, incentives to residents who fix their private leaks themselves and incentives to residents who sign up for online instead of paper billing.
Another proposed change will allow customers who don’t want to use their city water meter to lock it for $150. Customers can have it unlocked for free if they decide they want to use it again. Houston’s water meters automatically transmit household usage to the city’s server, but issues such as aging meters and slow replacements have doubled the number of malfunctioning devices.
Houston Public Works Director Carol Haddock said Monday that 125,000 of the city’s 550,000 accounts have to be read manually every month.
“We hear you and we know that we’re going to continue to hear ways to improve as we move forward,” Haddock said. “And we look forward to continuing to hear that, but also know that we know it’s a good day when we can present a plan to the community to help provide relief to everybody, including our most vulnerable Houstonians and our senior citizens.”
See here for the background. The Mayor’s package of ordinances includes the one initially put forward by CMs Amy Peck, Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, and Mary Nan Huffman under the new charter amendment that allows three Council members to add an item to the agenda.
Houston Landing adds some details.
Since 2019, officials say, Houston’s aging devices for remotely reading water meters have been failing at a rising rate. The number of accounts requiring a manual reading has increased from 40,000 in 2019 to 125,000 this year, leading the city to resort to estimated readings much more often.
When those estimates turn out to be far off-base, city code often restricts customer service agents from providing residents with relief.
“Quite frankly, these ordinances are outdated and they were written for a different time,” Turner said. “They were created with the assumption that all of the equipment worked properly and we received accurate readings of customers’ water usage. Today’s reality is quite different.”
Existing city ordinance prevents customers from requesting more than two water bill adjustments per year for water leaks. Turner is proposing to do away with that limit.
A second change would offer bigger incentives to fix the “private leaks” that are considered the customer’s fault. Customers would receive 100 percent relief on excess charges for fixing leaks within 30 days, 75 percent relief for repairs within 60 days, and 50 percent relief for repairs after that.
Customers also would receive a 100 percent credit on the wastewater charges associated with leaks, because that water rarely returns to the city’s sanitary sewage system.
Residential customers still stuck with high bills after the other adjustments can seek what is known as a leak balance remaining adjustment, which is designed to address the remaining excess charges. Turner said another reform will lower the cutoff for that adjustment from $2,000 in excess charges to $1,000 for most customers.
Another change: Customers seeking an unusually large bill adjustment will be on the hook for 125 percent of their average water usage as opposed to the existing 150 percent.
Public Works would be able to reduce customers’ bills for an “exceptional circumstances” adjustment, by up to $10,000 instead of the current $4,000 maximum reduction.
Rounding out the proposed changes are a 50-cent discount for customers who use electronic billing; an option for customers who do not take water to have their meters locked instead of seeking out expensive private plumbers to cap a line; and a prohibition on customers receiving higher, corrected bills after three months.
I switched to electronic billing for my water a few months ago, so yay for me. It all sounds good, and both Sheila Jackson Lee and John Whitmire have said they will pursue further improvements. Why it wasn’t addressed sooner is a question we likely won’t get an answer to before Mayor Turner’s term ends. The Monday episode of the CityCast Houston podcast addressed this as well.