In February 2020, a gap in reading water meters and water billing was brought before the council and the public. At the time, this resulted in the city being behind on collecting $6 million in water billing charges. One of the solutions presented in the following months was a 32/30 billing plan, which would read water meters every 32 days and bill customers every 30 days, a change from the 28-day billing cycle customers had been on. The goal is that this payment plan would catch the city up financially by late 2022 or late 2023. According to presentation from Utility Billing Manager Nancy Massey, the gap in bill cycles has gone from 78 days to 55 days, putting the city on its way to closing the gap by the deadline.
On top of collecting the funds, the city staff and council have also voiced a need to rebuild trust with the public after the water billing issue. One of the ways to do this was to have a citizens ad hoc committee, which would focus on utility billing issues, including the 32/30 plan and the findings of the Raftelis report, a review of Pearland’s utility billing department by Raftelis Financial Consultants. The ad hoc group was created in mid-January with the report published a few weeks later.
One of the objectives of the ad hoc group, which is composed of eight citizen volunteers, is to look into 32/30. At the May 24 meeting, Committee Chair Steve Saboe, who presented on behalf of the ad hoc committee, recommended the city stop the 32/30 payment plan, which is in line with Raftelis’ recommendation, Saboe said.
“We should replace it with something equitable and final, instead of something dragging into 2022,” Saboe said.
City Council had varying opinions on the ad hoc committee’s recommendation. Council Members Luke Orlando and Trent Perez, who were on council at the time 32/30 was voted on and implemented, defended the council’s decision to implement 32/30 at the time. However, both said they are open to hearing new options at this time as well.
“We had an unprecedented financial solution in the spring and summer of 2020,” Orlando said. “We did what we thought was best at the time.”
Last summer, council was presented with three options: to bill citizens incrementally to collect the outstanding amounts; to bill citizens at once for the outstanding amount, which would have meant sending two months of back-bills; or to take a financial hit and not collect the then-owned $6 million. As a year has passed, many members of council agreed they are open to considering another option.
Once council makes a decision on the financial side of the water billing issue, there is still a lack of trust between the community and the citizens, Council Member Tony Carbone said.
“When you read [the Raftelis report], it’s all about culture. After tonight, we’re no better off than we were two years ago,” Carbone said. “We may fix 32/30, but there will still be a trust issue.”
Mayor Kevin Cole said he would like to see more cooperation from the citizen committee and the city staff going forward, as he thought the cooperation that was there when the ad hoc committee was created had started to deteriorate in the last month.
“There was a point of time where the committee and staff worked together on this. I asked for us to accelerate the 32/30 discussion because it’s going to be something council has to wrestle with and may not be resolved in one meeting,” Cole said. “If we are going to build trust, we have to come together and agree on some things.”