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Commissioner calls water rate increase misleading

Friday, September 12, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

As if there weren’t enough questions swirling around the tenuous adoption of new water rates for the city, one member of the Water and Wastewater Commission has struck out against what she calls a “years-long pattern of obscuring utility rate impacts.”

In August, Commissioner Mickey Fishbeck, who also chairs the Joint Committee on Austin Water Utility Financial Plan, wrote a letter to City Manager Marc Ott about her “deep disappointment in the misleading public notice” placed in the Austin Chronicle by city staff.

Fishbeck spoke about the letter at the Water and Wastewater Commission meeting Wednesday night. Though City Council approved new rates, however temporary, last Tuesday, Fishbeck remained concerned that the rate increase had been misrepresented to the public.

“It has to be spoken somewhere. Someone has to tell the public that their bill is going to go up,” said Fishbeck.

After a protest from commissioners about the way rates were being presented in the budget, that presentation was modified to include the reduced usage assumptions. Fishbeck said she was sure Council members did understand that difference, but she was still worried about the general public.

“I thought we were OK, and everyone understood that. However, I then got a copy of an ad in the Austin Chronicle,” said Fishbeck. She added that the misleading rate increase information was then reported in the media, saying “that was the manner in which it was presented, and that’s the manner in which it was reported.”

Though budget presentation materials cited the monthly rate increase for average users would be $2.62, that included the assumption that average users would reduce their water usage by 1,000 gallons per month. If they did not change their water consumption, their monthly bill is set to rise by 22 percent – not the 3 percent suggested by the original materials.

Fishbeck said the idea that the average customer would reduce usage at that rate was a construct that was “really not based on much of anything.” In fact, Austinites have been using much less water this past year – more on the order of 6,400 gallons per month.

It’s this point that Assistant City Manager Robert Goode said was behind the original presentation of rates. In a statement provided to the Monitor, he wrote, “Declining average water use has been the central tendency of Austin Water’s customer base throughout this drought, and including this comparison fairly captured the bill offsets that reduced water use is having during a period of rising water rates. Clearly each individual customer’s experience is unique with regards to their willingness and/or capability to conserve, and they may experience bill impacts that will vary significantly from average water use comparisons.”

Goode acknowledged the concerns, and said that staff would “take steps to enhance bill impact communications in the future.”

Fishbeck’s frustration was shared by Impact Fee Advisory Committee member Brian Rodgers and Save Our Springs Executive Director Bill Bunch, who both spoke at the Water and Wastewater Commission meeting.

Rodgers said that he had tried to call several news outlets to get them to report the correct rate increase, to no avail. He also complained about city management, which he felt didn’t care.

“I’m seeing a contempt for the work that we have done, and an arrogance that they won’t even be accountable,” said Rodgers. “The best managing that they are doing is managing the public’s perceptions.”

Bunch thanked Fishbeck for her letter.

“It’s absolutely essential that we have truthful information,” said Bunch. “If this were just an isolated incident, then perhaps we could chalk it up to some good-faith error. But it’s really a pattern of misinformation.”

Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros strenuously disagreed.

“We’re not that smart, where we’re like, ‘Oh, let’s figure out how to deceive everybody,’” said Meszaros.

Meszaros pointed out that it was a challenge for the budget office to present information on a $3.5 billion budget that covers utilities, sales tax, property tax rates and all of the city departments. One of the ways to do that, said Meszaros, was to pick average amounts for average customers. He pointed out that budget materials are printed in advance.

Because of lowered water usage in Austin, city staff decided it was time to change that average water use.

Though Fishbeck said her criticism was not aimed at water utility staff, who she praised for their hard work, Meszaros said the utility was not separate from the budget office, who he pointed out was “not some nebulous group that doesn’t care about commission comment.”

“Over the last two years, there has been more change in our budget process … than in the history of the utility,” said Meszaros, who used recent changes in capital recovery fees suggested by the commission as an example.

“Do you know how hard the staff worked for that to happen?” asked Meszaros. “It doesn’t happen just because the Council gets enlightened at the last minute and votes on that. And that’s not just utility staff. That’s the city manager committing to that. That’s the Budget Office committing to that.”

Meszaros also pointed out the work that went into shifting the Sustainability Fund, Economic Development Transfer, Austin Police Department transfer, Austin Fire Department transfer and swimming pool transfer from AWU’s budget to the General Fund this year.

“That was all because the city manager put it in his budget. If he didn’t put it in his budget, it was going to be impossible for those things to get out of there. That took a lot of effort and time and discussion,” said Meszaros. “I don’t think you can just take one piece of this and say: I think you all screwed up the way you presented this. There is a bigger picture here.”

A visibly frustrated Meszaros said there was still time to correct any misconceptions.

“We’ll probably get another crack at this, because we are going to be doing our rates over again this fall,” said Meszaros. “The budget is not over for us. We’re the only city department the budget is not over for.”

“If we would have put out that information, it would have been wrong anyways, because we are going to end up changing it,” said Meszaros. “It’s just challenging. It’s very challenging.”

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