City explores automatic ‘transportation user fee’ exemption for seniors

FILE - Austin Energy decal. (KXAN Photo/Paul Shelton)
FILE - Austin Energy decal. (KXAN File Photo/Paul Shelton)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Some City Council members are interested in automatically exempting seniors from paying the city’s “transportation user fee.” This comes after KXAN discovered thousands of seniors have been billed the street repairs fee they didn’t need to pay.

At an Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee meeting Wednesday morning, Council Member Sheri Gallo said the utility could ask for a customer’s birthday and automatically apply the exemption to customers over 65. Council Member Delia Garza also said there could be an automatic system in place that would be triggered by a person’s birthday.

The discussions of an automatic exemption were preliminary, and it is not clear if the city will pursue it further.

KXAN was tipped off in October from residents who said they were not being notified adequately about the fee exemption. It funds street repairs and appears on bills as a “street service fee.” Because of KXAN’s questioning, Public Works added a notice to its website, letting seniors know they qualify to apply for the exemption that’s been on the books since 1992. Public Works told KXAN notices haven’t been included in utility bills for at least the last 7 years.

In October, even Austin Mayor Steve Adler told KXAN he was unaware seniors were exempt. Utility General Manager Jackie Sargent said there has been an uptick in the number of requests for the exemption since that time, reporting 1,341 requests for the exemption.

Garza said several of her constituents wanted to be refunded the money they paid since turning 65. According to city law, that won’t happen.

“There are people that would have loved to have taken advantage of it, if they had known about it.” — Delia Garza

“There are people that would have loved to have taken advantage of it, if they had known about it,” Garza said.

Those people include neighbors Glenda Miller, 85, and Donna Johnson, 82.

“We’ve been paying this fee for 20 years and that comes to about close to $2,000,” Miller said.

KXAN met Miller back in October, when she first learned she had been overpaying for decades. Though she requested  an exemption right away, Miller called the last several weeks “a nightmare,” after she received the wrong exemption form, had to wait another couple weeks and left voice mails that were never returned until finally she received confirmation the fee will be removed from her utility bill beginning in December.

“So from October 10 to November 29 it’s been stuck in the system,” Miller said, explaining she still has to pay the fee in that time.

Johnson said, “They should take it off automatically. They have our records, they have our date of birth from our property taxes and there’s too many people that never have known about it.”

Austin Energy said it runs the program for the fee, but the Transportation Department owns it.

Sargent detailed a raft of measures the utility has undertaken to improve the visibility and use of the exemption, including revising the request form, reviewing processes, reaching out on social media and planning a specific article to be printed in a January bill insert, among other actions.

Council Member Ann Kitchen said she still has concerns that older people, particularly those well over 65, aren’t finding out about the opportunity to remove the fee.

“If they don’t know that they should call in, they are not getting the exemption,” Kitchen said. “It concerns me a lot. It concerns me a lot and what it tells me is we’ve got some tools in our city that can help people, that can help seniors and we’re not using them to the full extent.”

You also qualify for an exemption if you do not own or regularly use a car.

“We really need to look across our city to see what else there might be that we need to know about,” Kitchen said.

Customers can request the exemption by calling the City of Austin Utility Customer Service Office: 512-494-9400 or visiting this website to find the exemption application form.

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