Hundreds of Trophy Club residents have signed a petition asking the Texas Public Utility Commission to rule on the latest water and sewer rate increase.
The Trophy Club Municipal Utility District’s new rates went into effect Sept. 1 but the fight goes back more than a year for Bill Rose, who circulated the petition and is leading the fight against the MUD.
More than the rate increase, Rose said the town’s method for calculating sewer rates is unfair because it charges residents a sewer fee for water consumed in the home up to 18,000 gallons. That includes irrigation that’s sprayed on the lawn that never enters the city’s sewer system and doesn’t have to be treated. He believes the average MUD customer is overpaying by about $270 a year, or $22 a month.
Rose, who served on the town council for five years, contends that other cities use a winter average to calculate sewer rates. Based on the thinking that residents irrigate less in the winter, it would give a truer picture of the water that actually ends up in the sewer system.
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"It’s well accepted in the industry but we don’t have that here," Rose said. "You get charged whether it goes down the drain to the water treatment center or if it goes onto the lawn or down a storm drain."
Jennifer McKnight, general manager for the MUD, said winter averaging runs counter to the MUD’s goal of promoting water conservation.
"Customers who are using more water will be charged more for their sewer," she said. "That encourages them to cut down on their water usage. It’s economically in their best interest to do it."
That puts a higher burden on customers who conserve water, potentially those with lower incomes, McKnight said.
Also, the MUD’s wastewater treatment plant treats more water in the summer than it does in the winter as, for example, customers drain their swimming pools, McKnight said. So, winter averaging means the MUD accepts more sewage while customers pay less.
Rose got 429 signatures for his petition, 115 more than was required. The MUD has until Nov. 9 to follow-up on the matter.
This is just the latest power struggle between the town of Trophy Club and the MUD, who fought over permitting for the treatment center expansion and making water and sewer connections new restaurants last month.
Challenging a rate increase at the Public Utility Commision (PUC) could be a daunting task for residents who aren’t familiar with how things operate in Austin. That’s why Rose is hoping to enlist the help of the Texas Office of Public Utility Counsel (OPUC), a consumer advocacy group that represents groups of residents in class action cases.
But that doesn’t come cheap. Getting help from the OPUC could cost as much as $100,000, which would be billed to the MUD if residents win their case. That in turn gets passed on to residents.
It’s a thorny issue that the OPUC must consider when deciding which case to take on. The last thing they want to do is cause a bigger impact on customers than the original rate dispute, said Michele Gregg, director of external relations.
"That doesn’t help consumers," Gregg said.
The OPUC only started advocating in water and wastewater cases in 2013. The team of about 19 employees, including five attorneys, have taken on only a handful of such cases.
For its part, the MUD has set aside $150,000 for legal expenses.
Rose said the MUD’s current rate structure makes it so residents pay a disproportionate share of the cost compared to commercial. Through open records, Rose found residents are paying 100 percent of their sewer processing costs and additional 45 percent, or $294,558 per year, of the commercial sewage costs.
While sewer rates for homeowners have gone up in recent years, sewer rates for commercial have actually decreased.
McKnight said that isn’t true. While commercial and industrial customers do have separate meters for their irrigation, there is no cap on water usage for them. Homes are capped at 18,000 gallons per month even if they use more than that.
As far as treatment goes, sewage from a restaurant or office building requires the same process as that from a home, McKnight said. Trophy Club doesn’t have any manufacturing that would put more toxic waste into the stream.