Houston water rate hike being challenged in court

HOUSTON From homeowners to apartment residents and business owners, everyone is paying more for their water bills to help with the city's budget crunch. The new rate hike is now entangled in a big court fight. The bottom line - the outcome could impact your bills.

Fresh out of a Travis County courtroom, former Harris County Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt spoke his mind on Tuesday, arguing the water increase passed recently by the Houston City Council that went into effect on June 1 was not just a burden on taxpayers but against the city charter.

"This is a huge increase. It should have been done properly," said Bettencourt. "The fact that we had to go to Austin is unbelievably disappointing to me to fight for the taxpayers."

In 2004, voters passed Proposition One which limits increases to water and sewer rates to a level which corresponds with inflation and growth. Bettencourt says the 30 percent rate hike passed by council goes well beyond that.

Because of that issue, the city itself took the case to a Travis County court to seek an opinion. That's when and where Bettencourt and another tax activist Bruce Hotze challenged the hike.

On Monday, the Austin judge hearing the case asked for briefs or explanations why it's right or wrong from both sides. Some view the judge's actions as a sign that the legality is not that clear.

"This was a gigantic price increase that was not justified. I think there's no plan on how the numbers were arrived at," said Houston City Council Member Mike Sullivan.

However, supporters are downplaying the judge's actions saying it's not unusual for a judge to review the arguments in a case like this. The city attorney reminded the public that the judge did not yet rule on the merits of the case.

"I'm sure they can spin anything they want into whatever they want it to be. But I can assure you that no one had a victory and no one had a defeat," said Houston City Attorney David Feldman.

On Tuesday, Mayor Annise Parker sounded unfazed by the charges and optimistic of a court victory.

"We know that we have millions of dollars in unmet needs and we believe this will give us the tools to provide us a supply of fresh water for decades in the future," said Mayor Parker.

If the judge lets the rate hike stand, Bettencourt says taxpayers will see as much as a 40 percent increase in their waters bills by 2013. A decision is expected by early next week.

Because other cities in our area buy water from the city of Houston, the rate hike in Houston is having an impact on people in other cities.

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