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Morrison proposes resolution to keep water on during utility cutoffs

Monday, September 16, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council Member Laura Morrison is preparing a resolution that could mean utility customers with delinquent bills would no longer face loss of water service. Morrison expects to bring the measure forward at the Sept. 26 Council meeting.


“The goal is to change our policy so that if there is a disconnect for nonpayment, the disconnect applies only to energy and not to water,” Morrison told In Fact Daily.


She called the disconnection of water a public health issue. “Some houses become uninhabitable even without energy, but without water that really gets to be a concern and I think it really makes it definitely uninhabitable.”


Morrison added that the document is a work in progress. She told In Fact Daily that not all details have been finalized as of Thursday afternoon.


Veteran Electric Utility Commissioner Shudde Fath has of late urged Council members to take such a step. In remarks she delivered at the EUC, Fath told her colleagues that she considered the cutoff of water a public health issue, and noted that the city did not always engage in the practice.


Current city rules allow utility providers to cut both electricity and water for ratepayers in arrears.


Morrison raised the issue as part of the budget debate. There, she expressed serious concern over the practice. “I’m flabbergasted that we are allowed to turn off somebody’s water,” Morrison said at the time. “We certainly wouldn’t give someone a (certificate of occupancy) to move into a building if there wasn’t water. I can understand with heat, electricity is important, but really, no indoor plumbing? That’s sort of shocking to me.”


The implications of Morrison’s resolution could go beyond humanitarian relief. Water disconnections require manual attention. When Austin Energy fully implements its new meter system, utility officials will be able to turn electricity on and off remotely. Should the city end its practice of also cutting water supplies for late bills, the effect of that decision, argued Morrison, could help reduce the cost of disconnecting and reconnecting delinquent accounts.


During that budget discussion, Austin Energy staff produced the results of a cost-of-service study about the disconnection and reconnection of past-due ratepayers. According to the study, $26 worth of the service – all told, a $72 expense – was a result of sending crews out for manual service. Morrison questioned those figures.


“One would think that sending the truck out would be the bigger part of it, and you have to do it twice,” she said. “That gets you to $26. Seventy-two is a whole lot more than $26.”


Utility officials had been charging a $25 reconnection fee and a $55 same-day service fee for ratepayers who want their service reconnected immediately. Council members struck the $55 fee as part of their FY2014 budget deliberations.


Austin Water Utility Spokesman Jason Hill reminded In Fact Daily that “Council sets policy and we carry out that policy.”

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