Houston’s newly elected Mayor, John Whitmire, had initially planned to unveil a comprehensive solution to address the skyrocketing water bills that have been draining residents’ bank accounts. The announcement was anticipated at the City Council meeting on Wednesday, but it has now been postponed without a given reason, and no details about the plan have been released, according to the mayor’s spokesperson.
KHOU 11 News has extensively covered the ongoing issues with excessively high water bills, attributing the problem to aging infrastructure and malfunctioning meters. The situation forced the city to estimate water usage for around 40,000 customers each month. The news outlet has reported on residents receiving bills in the tens of thousands of dollars, with some facing financial panic due to unexpected charges.
The problem prompted action from the Houston City Council, which unanimously approved a water bill relief plan in December. The plan encompasses nine proposals aimed at offering customers more options for relief from unusually high bills and changing how Houston Public Works responds to complaints.
Former Mayor Sylvester Turner, in a statement during the approval, said, “Today’s action removes the structural hurdles that prevented Houston Public Works from adjusting unusually high water bills. Because we have improved the ordinances, the department can be more responsive in the future. By making the changes, we also are improving the appeal process for customers and giving employees more flexibility.”
Key features of the approved plan include:
- Enhanced Customer Service: Equipping customer services with tools and resources to resolve the majority of disputes on the first call.
- Adjustment Limit Removal: Eliminating the limit on the number of times customers can get adjustments for water leaks each year.
- Incentives for Timely Repairs: Offering incentives for customers who repair water leaks within 30 days, with bill adjustments based on repair timing.
- Credit Qualification Adjustments: Modifying qualifications for a full credit for leak costs, lowering the threshold for maximum relief.
- Unknown Cause Adjustments: Lowering the adjustment threshold for cases where the cause of the increase is unknown and raising the adjustment limit.
- Locking Meters for Unused Properties: Eliminating the requirement for customers to pay for a private contractor to remove meters for unused properties. Instead, the city will lock the meter for a one-time fee of $150.
- Online Billing Credit: Providing a 50-cent credit each month for customers who sign up for online-only bills.
- Back Billing Elimination: Officially doing away with back billing over three months.
The plan was presented with the belief that it would address at least 90% of customer complaints, as stated by HPW Director Carol Haddock. Customers can now receive up to a 100% credit on their water bill if issues are reported within 30 days and a rate or meter problem is found.
Despite the delay in Mayor Whitmire’s announcement, residents await further details on the proposed plan to tackle persistent water billing challenges.