City of Houston

Houston City Council members proposing ordinance to address skyrocketing water bills

The agenda item proposed by Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, Mary Nan Huffman and Amy Peck is currently under review by the city’s legal department before it can be placed on a future council agenda. If approved, it would decrease the timeframe the public works department has to correct erroneous water bills, unless it’s in the customer’s favor.

Water Faucet
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
Some Houston residents recently received erroneously inflated water bills because of a problem related to the installation of new meter-reading devices, according to Houston Public Works.

Some Houston City Council members are planning to take advantage of a newly passed city charter amendment to address nearly a year of residential complaints of skyrocketing water bills.

And Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday evening he plans to propose changes to the city’s code of ordinances to also address those complaints.

“Over the last few months, Houston Public Works and the City of Houston Legal Department have worked on comprehensive changes to our Municipal Code of Ordinances to address the issue of high water bills,” he said in a statement. “This extensive array of regulatory and process improvements is designed to bring customer relief.”

Turner said his administration will present the proposed changes to city council by Dec. 6.

Increasing water bills have been the subject of discussion at several council meetings, where residents have taken to the podium to demand answers about their bills sometimes hiking into the thousands.

Turner’s announcement came just hours after city council members Amy Peck, Carolyn Evans-Shabazz and Mary Nan Huffman announced they submitted a joint notice to place an item on the agenda that will also provide water bill relief. The council members said their plan will further incentivize the public works department to modernize the city’s aging water meter system, which has been blamed for triggering the increase in pricey water bills.

Those council members said they prioritized water bill relief after hearing from Houstonians “who are rightfully frustrated.”

“People came to us with a problem, and now we have the ability to fix it,” Peck said. “This is how government should work.”

It’s the first time council members have attempted to place an item on the agenda since Houston voters OK’d a charter amendment earlier this month that allows at least three council members that opportunity. The council meeting agenda has long been determined almost exclusively by the mayor.

The council members’ item is currently under review by the city’s legal department before it can be placed on a future agenda. And if approved by council members, it’ll decrease the timeframe the public works department has to correct erroneous water bills, unless it’s in the customer’s favor.

“This measure codifies existing policy and will provide residents with meaningful consistency as we prepare to transition to a new (mayoral) administration,” Huffman said in a statement. “Residents of Houston should not be penalized for the city’s error. The amendment we proposed today will cap billing overages resulting from malfunctioning city equipment and will also incentivize Houston Public Works to make sure that their meters are functioning properly.”

Turner is on his way out of the office, and a runoff election Dec. 9 will determine the city’s newest mayor, either U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee or Texas Sen. John Whitmire.

The public works department in May issued an apology after a number of erroneous water bills were tied to newly-installed meter-reading devices. The department said in that statement the old devices led to some accounts being charged incorrectly.

“Moving forward, bills will be generated based on actual readings,” the department said in May.