One for the books... City wants to sever off a portion of its Public Water System. What would you do?

Sixteen years ago, I bought a mobile home park that was annexed to the city in 1967. Most of the residents living here own their own homes and have been residing at their individual residential addresses each with a city owned meter. So, each homeowner pays their city taxes and has been a direct city utility customers for years before I entered this lives. Every city water bill, since 1995, has an environmental “franchise” fee that is collected for the maintenance, repair or replacement of the pipes as needed.

The meters are city owned and the city had always operated and maintained the public water system. The homeowners would always call the city when there was a city main problem and the city crew would show up, no problem.

In May 2020, during the height of the pandemic, I got a call from a homeowner who told me that the she had returned back to her home, after being away for a few days, to find sewer water had entered her home and damaged floors. She said the city crew manager was in front of her telling her to call me because they were not going to maintain a private line. I spoke to him and two others until I reached the city utility director who also told me: “they are your lines”. I told him I was going to email him the park plat and information about the history of the community. Here, I’d like to mention that the homeowners and I have a 2016 the city council directive that told the city to replace the aged “fresh” water lines that leaked on a frequent basis AND to make sure it’s in writing that the city would be maintaining going forward so the homeowners wouldn’t be put through this again. The city swiftly did number one but didn’t do number two (pun intended) instead they city brainstormed and typed up an 8-page document that translates to a “hire our maintenance crew” document and we will do all the repairs the homeowners need and send you the bill document. The city titled it a “temporary maintenance agreement” and asked that I sign it which I didn’t for obvious reasons. Talks with the city had the officials saying its best this property be subdivided into the individual residential parcels so, in April 2017, I submitted the application they gave me, paid the fee they requested, and went to the development board meeting to be told that the city will not subdivide the property into the fenced defined residential units it’s been operating as and it would not grant any “grandfathered” status to the property. Basically, they wanted me to bring everything up to current codes. Disappointed, I walked away and stopped contact with the city especially since the homeowners “fresh” water lines were new and the city continued maintaining the sewer lines until that May 2020 phone call.

Several families had sewer discharges into either their yards or, worse, their homes and I’ve had to take up the expense of maintaining the lines while trying to get the maintenance restored. Since it’s an environmental issue, one homeowner contacted the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who studied the situation for 5+ months and concluded by sending a letter to the Mayor recommending that the city work with the homeowners and me to ensure no further discharges would occur. The City Utilities Director told me that while the letter recommended that the city work with us it did not mean the city’s work would be free. I reminded him the city is being compensated through the sale of sewer service and the collection of the franchise fee already. That didn’t change the city’s stance.

In June, at the onset of the city’s refusal to restore the maintenance, the city emailed over that 2017 “hire our maintenance crew” document asking for a signature but once the staff understood the reasons why I wouldn’t sign it they decided to go another direction and just do away with the entire community of city customers. How? By severing off the portion of the city’s public water system that serves the homeowners via install “master” meter at the property line. Basically, making the one system it is now into two systems.

Implementation of that “master” meter would turn the lines within the property from city public responsibility into landowner private responsibility AND turn the city’s utility customers –people with current legal rights to maintenance- to individuals that the city has no obligation toward allowing it to walk away from the dilapidated 1950s sewer lines the city profited off of since 1967. Those old lines would be on my back and the homeowners, by extension. The fact that the City wants to implement a “master” meter setting homeowner’s It It’s mind-boggling but the city is trying hard to run from the replacement project it estimated it to be in the million-dollar range.

In December, the city did install a meter at the property line. That worried the homeowners and me but for now it is still just a city device on a city system. Confirming that I received a letter from the City Manager informing me that the city will be sending its utility customers their last bill (note: none of the city’s customers were given the respect of being told directly) and will be billing me under one account but that a responsible party would need to walk into the city’s utility department office to open that one account. He was kind enough though to provide the utility department address so I wouldn’t have trouble finding it after living here for 20 years. Of course, I told him I would not be walking in to sign my name to that meter and was told that one would be opened for me. I have no idea what that means but I am in a situation where the city might be sending me an April bill which I cannot pay since it would be construed as accepting that property line meter. When that bill goes unpaid, the city might just shut off water. Who knows if that meter is enforceable or not… who knows if the city will cut off the water… I am just being told this is what the big guys want it and I cannot live my life nor can the city’s customers as it was before!

For ten months, the homeowners and I have been requesting a public hearing on the issue from the City Council. All requests have been ignored and due to Covid the City, till now- closes the city council meetings to the public. So, we cannot attend for the City staff and council to see the families they are treating as second-class citizens.

Since the city put a deadline, I’ve been shopping for lawyers but most want $500 an hour -some with discount to $450- which is something I just don’t have especially since God knows how long it will take to resolve this. I am still hoping to find a lawyer that’s passionate about what’s right is right, doesn’t mind kicking some municipal guys, and knows land use laws. The situation involves all the elements that would be great for some press and even a movie- what do you think?

We’ve got:
• An environmental issue with sewer discharges from the city’s historic lines serving the community. The City’s only drinking water source is the local water springs which might or can be affected.
• Homeowners that pay city taxes that are being discriminated against simply because they own mobile homes. All of whom have attached their homes and lives to land that is served by a city public water system with no issues other than the city’s desire to run from the older lines.
• Homeowners fighting the city alongside the 4th of 5th landowner of the community who is being pressured by it to maintain the mains when no previous landowner was required to do so.

Think about it this way… Since 1967 -meaning for more than half a century- the city has delivered “fresh” water to the homeowners’ homes and taken away their “dirty” water away via a vehicle that is now starting to have transmission problems and will soon need replacement. The City is now telling me the vehicle is mine and wants to give me the keys which no other prior landowner was forced to take and is trying to abandon it forcefully just because it wants to.

(movie has more exciting elements as the city is willing going to far lengths to walk away)

• The property is zoned commercial
• The city lock-controlled meters and chainlink fences subdivide the property into individual residential parcels
• There is a 1986 city accepted easement covers almost ½ the property which the city is simply ignoring as they push forward to shut out the entire community
• The two main laws that I have discovered by reading up online are Texas Water Code §13.139 and Texas Administrative Code § 24.207. Neither of them states that a utility-provider’s obligation to provide adequate service to its utility-customer drops if the customer it contracted with does not own the land.
• When a public utility wants to discontinue, reduce, or impair retail water or sewer utility service offered to utility customers it must petition the Public Utility Commission, in accordance with Texas Administrative Code § 24.249. The city has terminated sewer maintenance and is trying to abandon the lines disregarding its duty to comply with state law. I’ve asked them about this and their ideology is that they are not discontinuing, reducing, or impairing retail water or sewer utility service, they are simply changing the way their customers are billed. Go figure… what would you do?

I know I need a Texas municipal lawyer that has expertise in grandfathering rights which the city is denying us. So, if anyone has a contact many families and myself would appreciate it.

On another note, since this is one for the books -as a few have told me- and I may have to also go to the media please let me know if I need to clarify my story more for someone reading it for the first time or if I need to add something to it. It would help, thanks.

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Master Meter - City refuses to maintain separate meters at each home.

The municipality is simply eliminating their liability of maintaining separate meters and the plumbing (service lines) . With one municipal main meter located near the main trunk service, probably at far end of the MHP near a public road, the municipality only maintains the service lines up to the main meter. The MHP owner is responsible for all the plumbing throughout the MHP.

Obviously eliminating the separate (sub) meters is counter intuitive to the documented conservation when the actual consumer (home owner, or tenant) monitors and pays for their individual water /sewer usage.

Municipalities delegating their responsibilities to maintain utilities (water, sewer, gas, and even reclaimed water) is becoming the normal “business” practice at all types of multi-family properties through the US. Regrettably, I am not aware of an owner successfully litigating the issue.

For even more of an injustice, I have been involved with multi-family property owners where their municipality mandated an utility easement and also charged the owner tens of thousands of dollars for the “convenience” of the new main meter.

Luckily (?) , A reputable sub-metering service can easily provide billing of the residents with the existing (sub) meters.

“We’re here to answer your sub-metering questions”.

Good morning,

Thank you for your comment.

Yes, the hidden agenda of installing a master meter now after 56 years is to abandon the portion of their system that serves this community so they don’t have to replace the old sewer lines. However, is it legality of this municipality doing so after this length of time is what I need help with.

Paying for sewer infrastructure:
As far the appropriateness of the language in your letter, maybe review with a real estate attorney regarding "grandfathering " rights, as I am not sure sewer service was a right conveyed to you when you purchased the MHP.

Hello again,

I believe the only claim we have to sewer service is because there never was a master meter at the property line and because the city never required any previous landowner nor myself to maintain before they decided to stop maintenance in May 2020. Yes I do need a land use lawyer which I am hoping that someone can provide me a contact for.

I don’t have a good lawyer suggestion for you, but unfortunately the city is probably within its rights to do this. We had the same issue and ended up submetering. Our lines weren’t falling apart but same issue of city stopping the individual metering and going to master metering. The city did (I don’t know why) supply new (sub) meters for each lot however. This was also in Texas.

Every case is different and you have some facts on your side, but I think you’ll lose the battle to have the city agree to continue to maintain the utility lines, which is really the biggest issue I see.

The bit about the city encouraging subdividing and then your being told you can’t subdivide is pretty disgusting, but it’s completely irrelevant to your complaint except to put the “black hat” on the City.

You’ll need a lawyer if you want to pursue this, but you could call your city council member to see if they will do something to “help.”

Unfortunately your residents are poor and don’t contribute as much to the tax base as they are perceived to consume, so it is unlikely that your sob story will be received sympathetically by the council. But you never know.

Thank you for commenting.

I struggle to understand how a city can dictate to a landowner of 16 years to walk into their utility department to open an account that will allow for the business to bust because of the agenda behind it which is to walk away from the high $$$ sewer line replacement.
I think the city knows it might not be enforceable because the city manager wrote that “a responsible party for the property will be required to open an account with the Utility Department”. I asked what would happen if I didn’t go in as asked to one at which time he said one would be open for me. I guess we will soon see if the city will actually shut off water once a bill to that forced account goes unpaid.

If this goes to court, I trust the judge will see the true agenda of taking a 20 year utility customer from a person with maintenance rights to a nobody. Just a few days ago, the City lawyer told me that the city made mistakes by placing individual meters. I have that along with several other missteps logged like the misinformation the city gave the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regarding the wastewater collection system ready. And, yes, I have it in writing that the city encouraged subdivision and then said it’s not in its interest to do so.
I am interviewing lawyers but it is a heavy expense. As I said, this story is one for the books (maybe a movie too) because most lawsuits I’ve read about are ones with residents fighting the landowner over something while here we are working together to stop the city that wants to change our lives the way we’ve know them.

Over the last ten months, we’ve written countless requests asking for a public hearing. Just a few days ago, one councilman said he doesn’t mind hearing us if we can get some other council members on board. We are trying on all ends and hope something comes through soon.

I’m not an attorney, but a few thoughts from the peanut gallery:

  1. Check with the other MHP owners in town to see if they have or are going through a similar process as you. If it’s just you then this is a discrimination / retaliation case and you have another lever against the City. If it’s happening to everyone you need to band together with them to fight this.

  2. It would be interesting to figure out what exactly in May 2020 caused them to stop taking repair requests. This will be a key piece of information. Why several years after they put forward the “temporary agreement” you never signed?

  3. Help your residents make sure that the City is following the procedure to turn off water service. My understanding is that there is very specific criteria how service can be denied. If you’re a paying customer, you’re supposed to get service. A city cannot just turn off your water service on a whim. If they can complain to the PUC about it they should. You might get some legal standing from that process. I have seen it in action for electric utilities in Texas, but I do think City owned utilities get “exemptions” from a lot of PUC rules. What about looking into the City Ordinances when water service can be shut off? These usually need to be in accordance with State law…

  4. Get the TCEQ involved again and tell them the City has not made any offers (since they made their recommendation) to you in writing to resolve the sewer maintenance situation and the city is still allowing sewage repairs to cause environmental problems. You never mentioned how the City worked with the homeowners as part of that recommendation, if they did at all. It sounds like they called you and that was it, which comes across as a weak attempt to resolve the situation.

  5. When you do end up fighting this - part of your argument should be that the City must compensate you for all the franchise fees they collected (with interest) since 1995 to help fund the replacement of the lines.

While I do think the City may ultimately have the right to transfer responsibility back to you, I believe there are strings attached and they can’t have you foot the entire bill of a new sewer system. You’re going to need to get an attorney involved - pay them a retainer - and see if they can do the rest on contingency (unlikely unless they think you have a strong case). This is becoming more and more common so you might even see if you can dig up some case law… Would be very surprised if there is nothing.

PM me and I can refer you to a “creative litigator” in Texas and tell you about his relevant experience fighting overreaching City decisions like this.

Thank you for the peanuts!

  1. I am fairly certain there are no other historic parks like this within city limits. The others have master meters since they started off that way.

  2. The aging sewer lines have needed increased maintenance that coupled with the pandemic, most likely.

  3. In the City’s eyes the City is still offering service. They are just billing someone different. When I informed the City I will not be opening an account I was told one would be opened for me. Assuming the City follows through and opens one I will get a bill at the end of the month for everyone’s water usage. If that account goes unpaid I don’t put it past the staff -who went to lengths and misinformed TCEQ a couple of matters- to shut it off.

FYI the City is only removing water and sewer off the homeowner accounts to be placed on the account they intend to bill me through. They will continue to receive billings for trash on their accounts and, if applicable, gas which confirms that the TRUE motive of the billing change is to avoid the dilapidated sewer lines.

The residents know what is going on and will continue to pay the City on their accounts for an amount equal to their last billed amount.

The PUC told me, last year, to file a formal complaint which involves a lengthy wait process, as I understand, and honestly I have no confidence in their process since they paper-pushed the City’s private property card on everyone that complained, last year. No one, to my knowledge, told them yet that the City intends to bill differently and again I believe they will ignore me once again. Regarding, a water shut off I am fairly certain it’s only allowed in the event of non-payment as per Texas State law. So, they may have legal standing to close it if next month’s bill goes unpaid.

  1. Honestly, a movie could be made of the events that happened just with TCEQ. The initially assigned TCEQ investigator studied the issue and read all the homeowner / property facts, reached out to multiple departments, and kept me and one of the main homeowners involved up to date for 4+ months. End of August, he wrote the homeowner directly of the different personnel he was in contact with and that they all concluded that there was a level of responsibility upon the City. That month he was explaining where the City can move the lines to and about funding avenues the City has. By mid-September, the investigator wasn’t answering our calls or emails as much and we –the homeowner and I- asked to talk not only to his boss but the person up a level. Both spoke to us and began saying that although they found mistakes the City had done they’d like to take a kinder approach and just recommend to the City to work with us. The highest level person said in his experience that most cities take the TCEQ’s recommendations because they’d have an interest in protecting public health. So, the first report stated that TCEQ could not determine ownership of the sewer lines (which I understand why) and recommended to the Mayor that the City work with us to ensure no future SSOs occur.

The 1st report was received on October 5th, 2020, the next week a homeowner had a discharge into her home and contacted the City a couple of times to be ignored. She tells me a few days later so I call the city maintenance department who sent their crew with the jet machine. The crew puts their camera in the line, talks on the phone, and tells me their director refused it. I called him and was told that although TCEQ told the City to work with us the work would not be for free… I reminded him that the homeowners are paying for sewer services and the environmental franchise fee but he said he would not authorize it. So, I asked the investigator to please come to check out the homeowner’s issue and I had another person contact me. She told me she was an investigator and gave me the day/time she would be coming in. The homeowner and I meet her and before she left she said she’d be citing my company. I was stunned and asked who she was in relation to the first investigator and she said she was assigned to this investigation. I asked her for some time to talk to the local director and regional director that I was in contact with and she said ok. I questioned them about the 1st investigator and they both said she was the assigned investigator and that I should work with her. So, I did and because of the citation scare I remembered that the City locks the water meters when someone doesn’t pay their bill or if the meter is not in use. The day I sent pictures showing control of the PWS I thought for sure TCEQ would stop that citation and ask the City for action but she continued with her stance. So, I started researching laws to send her along with all the information I sent the 1st investigator over 5 months but the citation remained however it was deemed immediately cleared since I informed them that I poured clorox and threw some dirt on the site. I disputed that citation telling TCEQ they had no legal basis to cite my company but it remained with the TCEQ staff telling me not to worry since I am not a utility and I poured clorox… just don’t worry. I began contacting other professionals at other departments to explain what happened without mention of the city. Two senior engineers said it sounds like a city system. Others also and gave me some guidance.
In early March, another discharge happened and since the City did not respond to the homeowner I filed another complaint with TCEQ and one with the EPA too. TCEQ sent a 3rd investigator. She said she was familiar with the situation and would reach out to me with questions.

While I was still contacting other TCEQ individuals about the system, a lady took an interest because she understood the situation the homeowners and I am in. Three weeks ago, she asked me a question that triggered my memory that the City has a manhole within the historic boundaries of the larger parcel of property I bought in 2005. TCEQ refused to answer my questions regarding that manhole but I was informed yesterday that the 3rd investigation would be closed informing the City of Del Rio that TCEQ will not make a determination on system and that I have to work it out with the City. There is no doubt if the property was master-metered TCEQ would’ve fined me but why they are not taking action against the City as the 1st investigator told and wrote us is a cause of frustration.

Earlier today, I emailed the local and area directors asking on what legal basis are they letting the public retail utility go without action. Have not received a reply, yet.

BTW the EPA told me, initially, that TCEQ would be my point of contact however the regional water manager assured me he’d look into ways to help. That was just a few hours ago…

  1. Thank you for advice. I will keep that in mind if the City sits to negotiate.

Yes, I realize I need an attorney. Great advice about asking if someone can do the rest on contingency- thank you!

I’ve been researching case law and haven’t found anything, yet. One of the large universities said they’d like to hear more about the issue- next week.

I will PM you because I’d love the creative litigator’s contact. This administration really needs a wakeup call.

If you or anyone has a contact with a newspaper or reporter I would appreciate that, too. I think the City would be embarrassed if this story got coverage. Well it’s a beautiful weekend and I hope you and everyone reading enjoys it!

You want to contact @TheMHPLawyer. He’s $300-400/hr depending, but absolutely worth it. Wish you the best of luck! For sure, this is BS and you need qualified legal counsel to sort it out. $1m in maintenance is at stake.

Many thanks for the information!

Yes, the reason the City wants the homeowner’s water usage to be billed to an account under my company name is because of the $1mil sewer line issue.

The homeowners have just begun yesterday to receive a letter from the City (see attached) informing them that it will only be moving the water / sewer charges to the account they are going to force open for me. The main issues in the letter are:

(1) The City sent a generic “Dear Tenant” letter to their customers without addressing each customer personally by their name as is legally required under Texas Administrative Code §24.249

(2) This is not a factual statement because the City has served the individual customers since 1967

(3) In December, the City did install a device on their water system at the property line. That device is under the City of Del Rio’s jurisdiction and is not considered a “master” meter until an actual master (landowner or landlord) walks into the utility office and signs their name to take responsibility for it. Confirming this he the City sent me, in March, which stated that “a responsible party is required to open an account”.

(4) The City only intends to shift the water / sewer billing to the account it will be opening for me. The City will continue to bill trash services to the customers under their individual accounts and gas, if applicable.

(5) The City is comforting the homeowners that “no action is necessary” on their behalf.

(6) Only water and sewer will be billed to me.

(7) The City is comforting the homeowners not to worry about billing rates which are governed by the PUC and TCEQ while not informing them of the TRUE cost of this billing shift which is the $1mil sewer line issue.

Again, many thanks for the referral! city.pdf (589.0 KB)