Utility price increases often start earlier than you think

Dear Watchdog Nation:

We were hoping you could help us with our water bill from the city of Watauga, Texas. They passed a rate increase of 30 percent for water and sewer and 100 percent for drainage fees, effective Oct. 1. We received our bill for September, and they charged us the new rates. We called to complain and they basically said we had to pay it, and if we didn’t like it we could attend the next council meeting.

We also tried to e-mail the city manager, Dr. Scott Neils, but we never heard back from him. It’s like they don’t care at all. We don’t feel we should be charged for usage in September for a rate increase that went into effect Oct. 1. Thank you for any help you can give us and the other residents of Watauga.

— Kathy and Robert Moran

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Dear Mr. and Mrs. Moran:

This is an issue of government transparency. As readers of the Dave Lieber Watchdog column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram first learned, anytime a government is going to take more money out of your pocket, as the Watauga council voted to do in late September, officials have to be crystal-clear about it. That didn’t happen here.

But while Neils, who has been in office for six months, did not answer you, he more than made up for it after The Watchdog pushed your cause.

Here’s the big news: The city manager tells me that Watauga is postponing all three rate increases until Dec. 1. Plus, 6,000 of the city’s 8,200 customers who were charged the higher rate for their September usage before the effective date will get credits in the November bill. A refund!

Neils told me: “I agree that the information for the customers may have been unclear as to the effective date of the rate increase and when the billing with the new rate would begin.

“When I received the e-mail from the Morans, I began an evaluation of the impact on our consumers given the amount of increase in the rates and the larger consumption patterns we noticed from our customers, even with the water conservation programs in place.

“After this analysis, I have concluded that, given the unusual circumstances, it is appropriate to provide some relief to our customers.”

Credits will show up on the November bill, he said, adding, “We apologize for any inconvenience to our customers and to the Morans in particular. We hope that this solution will be acceptable to all.”

City staffers will manually adjust 6,000 bills to apply the credits. (Note that software used by most cities for water bills cannot adjust when there’s a rate change in the middle of a billing cycle. But electric meters can do that, according to the Texas Public Utility Commission.)

It comes down to this:

Officials should clearly explain to customers that a rate increase doesn’t apply to the time when the water was used, but to the date the bills are issued. That’s a lesson for area cities increasing their water and sewer rates.

North Richland Hills does it correctly on its website by stating an increase in water rates “will go into effect with the October 2011 billing cycle which is primarily water consumed during the month of September.” However, the city states on an insert that went into water bills that the increase “will go into effect Oct. 1.”

City spokeswoman Mary Peters agrees with the need for transparency and said, “It wasn’t as specific as it was on the website. We probably could have done a little better there.”

In Fort Worth, an increase in water and wastewater rates will take effect Jan. 1. Spokeswoman Mary Gugliuzza says that because of the way the city’s billing system is structured, a small number of customers will pay for only a few days of water usage in December at the higher rate.

In Arlington, the city approved a water rate increase that went into effect Oct. 1. As in Watauga, customers were charged for the previous month’s usage at the higher rate because of the billing cycle.

“You just have to pick a date and make it the effective date,” Water Utilities Director Julie Hunt said.

Watauga Finance Director Sandra Morgan explained the thinking behind the city’s decision to postpone the increase. “You have to put yourself in the citizens’ shoes. Certainly, if we haven’t communicated well enough, we have to go back and do it better.”

The Morans’ reaction to the news: “WOW. We fought City Hall and won!”

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