Copperas Cove city council votes for utility rate changes, eliminating senior discount
By BRITTANY FHOLER
The Copperas Cove city council moved forward with approving the city’s amended fee schedule, changing the utility rates and effectively eliminating the senior citizen discount, after hearing from several residents comment against the rate increase and discount elimination during the council’s regular meeting Tuesday evening.
The increase to the water and sewer base rates and decrease in volumetric rates, as well as the senior citizen discount, have been the topic of several city council workshops and meetings this summer. After much discussion, the city council agreed to change the water base rate from $14 to $20, decrease the water volumetric rate from $4.75 to $4 per 1,000 gallons, and a sprinkler volumetric rate down to $3.50 per 1,000 gallons, while increasing the sewer base rate from $14 to 20 and decreasing the sewer volumetric rate from $5.75 to $4.85 per 1,000 gallons. The solid waste base rate increases from $19 to $19.83, and the stormwater or drainage fee increases from $6 to $7.
The city has offered a senior citizen discount of 20 percent to residents ages 65 and older since the 1980s. Eligible residents had to request the discount.
Council had previously been advised that a discount for senior citizens went against state law and had discussed slowly reducing the discount until it was eliminated, but during the last council discussion on the utility rate, council members provided direction to city staff to eliminate the discount altogether.
Paired with the rate changes, a senior citizen who uses 1,000 gallons would see their bill increase by $24.06. For a residential customer who has not received the discount, their bill would increase by $12.75.
If the customer used 5,000 gallons of water, the residential customer would see their bill increase by just $5.65, whereas a senior customer would see their bill increase by $25.86, without the discount.
Residents speak out, object to changes
Several residents wrote in, called and spoke during Tuesday’s meeting during citizen’s forum and during the public input times.
Cheryl Lewis submitted a written comment to the city council which was read by City Manager Ryan Haverlah during the citizen’s forum portion of the meeting.
“Many of the citizens of this fair city do not live extravagantly. Citizens of Cove can not go anywhere else for water and as human beings, we cannot go without water,” Lewis wrote. “We should not be used for profit to the city for a necessary and essential service. By raising the base rate on both the water and sewer by $6, every household will increase $12 a month before the first drop of water is used.”
Lewis wrote that her bill would change by $14 to $75.68 before her household uses any water. She said she averages 2,000 gallons or less per month with no sprinkler or outdoor pool.
Resident Bo Roldan, who delivers meals with Meals on Wheels, expressed her own concern with how this rate change will affect the senior citizens.
“My concern is how are the seniors of this city going to pay additional fees when some of them can’t even pay for their medication? Some of them have limited income to be able to survive and from what the city manager read, a lot of them do not have extravagant expenses,” Roldan said.
She said she was worried that some senior citizens might have to choose between paying for their medication, food or paying their water bill.
Tom Francis called in during the public input portion before council took action on the fee schedule and mentioned a tiered fee schedule he said that council had discussed previously. He said this would have been “less of a stab in our back” than the current changes.
Oz Gant also called in and shared her concerns about the effect of raising rates during a pandemic and the impact that would have on people who already have a hard time paying their water bill. Gant said she felt there were many problems the city had not addressed yet, and she didn’t think it is the best move and in the best interests of anyone to increase the rate.
Theresa Deans called in and referred to the elimination of the discount and the rate increases as a “very difficult double blow to the senior citizens” who already live on a fixed income and are unable to go out and increase their incomes.
“Increasing our fees and then eliminating the senior citizen discount is not just a hard blow to our budgets, but it’s a hard blow to our guts as well,” Deans said. “I don’t know how that our city can expect the seniors to continue to support our city with all that they have to offer when the city continuously hits them in the gut with the financial aspects.”
Councilmembers speak, city attorney releases opinion in memo
After hearing from residents, Councilmember Dianne Yoho Campbell made the motion to approve the amended fee schedule, which was seconded and passed unanimously.
Councilmember Fred Chavez requested the city to release information behind why the discount had to be eliminated, and Campbell agreed.
“I’m very concerned with a lot of misinformation that has been put out there publicly about why we’re raising the fee, and it just starts very simply with the cost of water. The fee for that water was raised to the city,” Campbell said. “It also has to do with what the cost is to provide good, clean water and the infrastructure that’s required to provide that, and then to be assured that we can provide firefighting power with our water sources.”
Campbell said that the council struggled for a long period of time to come to the decision to change the rates.
As for the legality of the discount, Campbell referred to the section of Texas Government Code 1502.057, which states that: “(a) A municipality shall impose and collect charges for services provided by a utility system in amounts at least sufficient to pay: (1) all operating, maintenance, depreciation, replacement, improvement, and interest charges in connection with the utility system; (2) for an interest and sinking fund sufficient to pay any public securities issued or obligations incurred for any purpose described by Section 1502.002 relating to the utility system; and (3) any outstanding debt against the system. (b) The rates charged for services provided by a utility system must be equal and uniform. A municipality may not allow any free service except for: (1) municipal public schools; or (2) buildings and institutions operated by the municipality.”
Councilmember Jay Manning added that he has been concerned about the direction the city has been going for several years.
“I think it shows in the way that we’ve tried to reduce the senior citizen discount slowly in the past, but where we’re going is if we carried the direction that we were going out to the end, the gallon that we provided of water would have cost about $4 million, so there has to be some kind of evaluation that the system that you’re responsible for protecting works, and that’s what we’ve done,” Manning said.
Manning said that council members have aged parents and some are even aged themselves. He added that he was understanding of the economic struggles people are facing as well.
“I think that we have talked about instituting some kind of relief for this — something that is going to work in a little bit different way than a government entity trying to fix those problems, and so that’s why I’m for this,” Manning said, referring to the previous discussion about the creation and implementation of a program that customers could donate to in order to help low-income utility customers.
Councilmember Jack Smith also mentioned fire protection and said that the cost of the fire protection needed to be shared by every resident, “whether you use a drop of water or 8,000 gallons.”
Manning brought up Kempner, which has a base rate of $70.
“That’s a far cry from where we are, and you get no fire protection for it and very little pressure sometimes, so we need to put things in perspective,” Manning said.
The utility rate changes go into effect on October 1, 2020.
On Wednesday afternoon, the City of Copperas Cove issued its own statement regarding the elimination of the discounted rates for senior citizens, along with a four-page memo from the city’s legal firm, Denton, Navarro, Rocha, Bernal & Zech, P.C., answering the question:
“Does state law authorize a discount for water and sewer rates for Senior Citizens as a class of utility customer?”
DNRBZ’s explanation stated that “Texas Government Code, Chapter 1502 requires that rates charged for utility services must be equal and uniform between permissible classes of customers. Further, that Chapter prohibits allowing any free service, except as specifically indicated therein. Additionally, the Texas Supreme Court has determined that permissible factors to establish different classes of customers are limited to those related to differing characteristics of the type of service provided, rather than authorizing differences between similarly-situated rate payers.”
DNRBZ gave a longstanding common-law rule regarding public utility rates, citing a 1952 ruling by the Texas Supreme Court, that, “The common-law rule that one engaged in rendering a service affected with a public interest or, more strictly, what has come to be known as a utility service, may not discriminate in charges or service as between persons similarly situated is of such long standing and is so well recognized that it needs no citation of authority to support it. The economic nature of the enterprise which renders this type service is such that the courts have imposed upon it the duty to treat all alike unless there is some reasonable basis for a differentiation. Statutes have been enacted in almost every state making this common-law rule a statutory one.”
DNRBZ went on to say that two utility customers, a senior citizen and a non-senior citizen, who each receive the same residential utility service are similar situated.
“Differing rates between those two users would be discriminatory. None of the variables stated by the Texas Supreme Court or the Austin Court of Appeals would allow for differing rates based on income level or age of the service user. As such, state law does not authorize a discounted rate for senior citizens as a class of customers.”