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Council Member Flannigan seeks to revise Austin’s drainage fee system

Thursday, May 11, 2017 by Syeda Hasan

For much of her life as a homeowner, Joan Reames never noticed the drainage charge on her monthly utility bill. That was until the city revised the system in 2015. Reames said the monthly fee for her condo complex suddenly increased by more than $2,000. The city sends the bill to her homeowners association. Then it’s split among the neighbors.

“Our property management is being billed for that, and then we reimburse them, and we’d just like it to be billed back to each homeowner,” Reames said.

The fee increase came as a shock to Reames and her neighbors, many of whom are seniors on fixed incomes. Residents brought their concerns to City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who has penned a resolution aimed at making the billing system for drainage fees more transparent. He also wants to find a way to offer relief to residents who are having trouble paying.

“I wanted to make sure that this issue was daylighted because I’ve certainly had constituents concerned,” Flannigan said.

Under the new system, the city no longer charges residents a flat drainage fee. Instead, the city now calculates monthly charges based on the amount and percentage of impervious cover on the property, any man-made material like a parking lot or driveway that doesn’t allow stormwater to penetrate the ground.

The change is the result of a 2009 lawsuit brought forward by ratepayers. The city lost that suit after a judge ruled the flat-fee system used up until that point was unfair to those living in multifamily housing, and in violation of a state statute that requires municipalities “offer drainage service on nondiscriminatory, reasonable and equitable terms.”

Saul Nuccitelli with Austin’s Watershed Protection Department said residents who live in a single-family home are still charged individually. The city divides the bill evenly for those who live in a duplex, triplex or fourplex. In the case of larger properties like apartment buildings or strip malls, the entire bill goes to the property owner. They decide how to split drainage charges up among various tenants, and Nuccitelli said there’s no way for tenants to look up those calculations. The city doesn’t track that data after billing the property owner.

“The city’s able to understand how much impervious cover is on the property, but what the city doesn’t have information on is the proportion of area that’s occupied by any given unit, so in an example of a strip mall for instance, we don’t know the interior square footage of every given commercial space,” he said.

Through his resolution, Flannigan wants to explore whether it’s possible to divide the fee equally between tenants as opposed to billing the property owner. Stemming from that, he wants to see if it’s possible to give discounts to seniors and people on fixed incomes. Flannigan had planned to introduce the item at today’s Council meeting, but he’s seeking to delay it for now. He wants to be sure those discounts are allowed under state law before returning with an updated resolution.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Robert LawtonRobert Lawton, CC BY-SA 2.5, Link.

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