For much of her life as a homeowner, Joan Reames never noticed the drainage charge on her monthly utility bill. Then 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 bills her homeowner’s association and then the cost is split among the residents.
“Our property management is being billed for that, and then we reimburse them," she said. "We’d just like it to be billed back to each homeowner.”
The fee increase came as a shock to Reames and her neighbors, many of whom are on fixed incomes. Residents brought their concerns to Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who wrote 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 current system, the city no longer charges residents a flat drainage fee. Instead, the city calculates monthly charges based on the amount and percentage of impervious cover on the property, that is, any artificial surfaces, like a parking lot or driveway, that doesn’t allow stormwater to penetrate the ground.
While residents of a single-family home are 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. Property owners decide how to split up drainage charges among tenants. Saul Nuccitelli with Austin’s Watershed Protection Department 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," he said. "So in an example of a strip mall for instance, we don’t know the interior square footage of every given commercial space."
Flannigan wants to explore whether it’s possible to divide drainage fees equally among tenants as opposed to leaving it to the property owner. He would also like discounts for seniors and people on fixed incomes.
He had planned to introduce the item at Thursday's council meeting, but he's seeking a delay to be sure those discounts are allowed under state law.