AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Public Works Department has failed to send out any kind of notice for the “transportation user fee” senior exemption for at least seven years. So if you know, you know. If you don’t, you just keep paying.
To add to confusion, the fee is labeled “street service fee” on utility bills themselves. The fee funds street maintenance and repair and annual street overlay and striping, along with other necessary measures to keep up roadways.
KXAN went straight to Public Works Monday, after several people saw our report on Friday, and said they contacted the city to get what’s listed as the “street service fee” taken off their bill. The monthly fee funds street maintenance and repair, and ranges from around $6 to $10 a person. KXAN met with 85-year-old Glenda Miller, who’s paid the fee for the last 20 years and didn’t have to.
“We had no idea that is discount was available,” Miller said of she and her neighbors.
Public Works collects the money until someone 65 or older applies for the exemption. Even then, there are no refunds.
“That really makes you angry. That just is not right. It just seems immoral,” Miller said. “Having a $10 fee, monthly, that really mounts up. And over the years it’s a substantial amount of money.”
Public Works Assistant Director James Snow has been with the department seven years and says notices in bills stopped before he even got there.
“We haven’t actually put a flier out, but during the annual budget process every year, as we work through council, what we do is we actually talk about exemptions like this during the council process,” Snow said.
KXAN asked if Public Works thinks the average senior homeowner can really know what exemptions are in place solely based on the budget process. When KXAN first began investigating viewer complaints and concerns Friday, we found there was no mention of the exemption on the web page detailing the Transportation User Fee either.
“We at the city of Austin are always trying to make sure that we’re more inclusive, more open and transparent about what we do in our budgeting,” Snow said.
But people like Miller, say they’re not seeing anything to support that. “I listen to the news, I read my newspaper, I’m careful. So I feel that I’ve done everything that I can. And I was just not informed,” she said.
Friday, KXAN learned even Mayor Steve Adler was not aware of the exemption.
“I thank you for bringing that to my attention. And I’ll make it a suggestion to my colleagues on the council and to the utility department that we provide some kind of notice to folks to let them know that they do have this right,” Adler said. “More people should know about it.”
Austin’s Public Works Department explained that several years ago, it would include inserts in utility bills about every six months. In a statement last week, the department said, “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.”
Snow assured KXAN, “Whatever way we can to get the message out we can and we will try.”
After KXAN pressed, those efforts began Monday. Now, if you go to the web page detailing the Transportation User Fee, you’ll find a section that talks about the 65 and older exemption and includes an email address to contact. You can also call 311. Keep in mind, Public Works says it could take up to two billing cycles to remove the fee.