Proposed amendments would streamline appeals process for water billsBy ANTHONY WARREN,
By ANTHONY WARREN
Senior Staff Writer
Jackson residents could soon have an easier time disputing what they feel are extremely high or inaccurate water bills.
The city council is expected to vote next week on amendments that would streamline the city’s water billing appeals process.
Council members gave the green light to place it on the August 6 agenda for consideration after the measure was introduced at a meeting in late July.
Public Works Director Robert Miller said the amendments will help streamline the appeals process, which has been frustrating for some customers.
“It’s a simplified ordinance intended to ensure due process for customers concerned about the accuracy and validity of their bills,” he said.
Under the proposal, residents and business owners would be able to appeal disputed amounts directly to public works, who would then schedule an appeal before an administrative law judge.
Once the bill is appealed, the city would be unable to cut off water service for nonpayment of the disputed amount, Miller explained.
The amendments would replace the current appeals process, which includes going through the city attorney’s office.
Right now, customers can file complaints with the city attorney, but only after they receive a disconnect notice. On top of that, any request for a hearing must be submitted in writing.
Once the request is received, the city attorney will set a hearing date and notify public works that an account is on appeal.
Like the proposed measure, the city cannot disconnect an account once the appeals process is under way.
Miller said the current process has a number of flaws. Among them, he said customers have little time to file for an appeal once they receive a disconnect notice.
Similarly, the attorney has little time to notify public works that an appeal has been requested before the water is shut off.
Once customers receive a shutoff notice, they’re given 14 days to pay the past due amount or work out a payment plan.
Because of such a short timeframe, public works is often not notified of an appeal until after a person’s water is already shut off.
“People thought they had set up a hearing, and then the water gets turned off and public works has to turn it back on,” he said.
Public Works Deputy Director of Administration Carla Gammill said the current process also is not set up to handle a large number of cases.
Cases currently are handled by one deputy city attorney. That person receives requests from customers and then sets a hearing date as quickly as possible.
Because that attorney also has other duties with the city, cases could be dragged out for weeks without being resolved.
Backing up that point, as of last week, the office had a backlog of more than 100 cases.
All of the requests were made after the city began ramping up its water collection efforts last November.
Under the proposed ordinance, customers will be able to bypass the city attorney’s office and schedule hearings directly through the water billing department.
And instead of having to submit a written request for a hearing, the person may request one over the phone or in person.
Complaints would be heard before an independent administrative judge appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council.
That judge’s sole responsibility would be handling water bill appeals, meaning disputes could be addressed in a more timely manner.
Additionally, customers would not have to wait for a disconnect notice before asking for a hearing.
Under the proposal, customers would only have to show evidence they tried to work out concerns with the billing department prior to seeking one.
The amendments come as the city faces a legal challenge from six water customers who are asking a judge to discontinue water shutoffs in light of complications with the Siemens contract.
The suit was filed in Hinds County Chancery Court in June.
Officials in public works say the amendments were not introduced as a result of the suit but as part of an overall strategy to improve the water billing process.
The council’s next meeting is slated for 10 a.m., Tuesday, August 6, at Jackson City Hall.