AUSTIN (KXAN) — If you’re at least 65 years old, you’re exempt from paying what’s called a “street service fee” on your utility bill. But don’t expect the city to tell you. You have to let the city of Austin know you’re qualified. And when you do, the fee will only be removed from bills from then on out. According to the city code, passed in 1992, there are no refunds.
The monthly fee funds street maintenance and repair and annual street overlay and striping, along with other necessary activities to keep up roadways. What shows up as “street service fee” on your utility bill, is actually called the “transportation user fee” in the city code and on Public Works’ website. Customer Tom O’Meara says the connection isn’t obvious.
“It doesn’t say transportation user fee on the bill. They gave it a little nickname that somebody could miss,” he said. “I would think it certainly can be a lot clearer.”
O’Meara is one of several individuals who reached out to KXAN with the exemption concern, after seeing a post on his neighborhood’s ‘Nextdoor’ network.
“I’m over 65 and I’ve been paying for 4 years I didn’t need to pay it,” he said.
KXAN learned there used to be notices of exemptions included in city utility bills. The exemptions were put in place 24 years ago, yet KXAN Investigates learned some city leaders didn’t know exist. Not until we brought it up.
“Frankly, I did not know the transportation user fee is something that when you turn 65 you could opt out of,” Mayor Steve Adler said Friday. “I think the issue you raise is something a lot more people should know about.”
Austin’s Public Works Department explained via email that several years ago, it would include inserts in utility bills every six months or so. “We did this for several years but customers complained that their bills were too cumbersome and, in an effort to minimize paper waste, we discontinued this practice. Following this, we had the exemptions printed on the bill next to the fee. There are limits to the amount of text and inserts that may be included in utility bills as customers have requested an easier to read, more streamlined bill so we no longer do this.”
KXAN brought that explanation to Adler, who said, “The fact that the city used to do it in the past is a demonstration that there’s obviously more we could be doing.”
Public Works directed us to its web page that breaks down the transportation user fee, which details where the money goes and rates for different residential customers. But nowhere on the page does it indicate an exemption for customers 65 and older.
“It’d be a good idea for all of us to work as hard as we can to be clear about this stuff,” O’Meara said, so the extra cash stays where it should.
“I thank you for bringing that to my attention,” Adler said. “I’m happy that you are bringing this to light because more people should know about it.”
Adler says he will bring the concern up with council members and city staff to provide some type of notice to customers. Those who do not own or regularly use a private car are also not required to pay the street service fee. To request an exemption, call 311.