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?
• 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.