Did you know, if you’re at least 65-years-old, or you don’t own a vehicle, you could be saving more than $100 per year on your Austin utility bill? A Vietnam veteran just found out he has paid hundreds of dollars, during the past four years, for a fee he should’ve been exempt from.
It’s one he feels the city doesn’t want you to know about.
"I don't mind paying taxes,” said Mike Stratton. “I don't mind doing any of that. But, when somebody's charging me for something they shouldn't be, that upsets me."
Stratton was born and raised in Austin and has lived in his current home for 26-years. The soon-to-be 69-year-old recently learned, once you turn 65, you’re eligible for an exemption from the city’s Transportation User Fee (or Street Service fee) that’s tacked on to Austin utility bills.
"People just don't know about it,“ he said. “And, the city is not taking the time to tell them, because if they do they're going to lose money. And, they don't want to do that." The monthly Transportation User Fee varies – but, is currently $9.77 for a house like Stratton’s.
The money is used to maintain city roads and other infrastructure.
"A lot of 65-year-olds are on fixed incomes,” said Stratton. “Every penny counts. And, they don't care. The city doesn't care." Stratton figures, during the last four years since he turned 65, he has paid about $490 for the Transportation User Fee.
"I called the city of Austin and I said, 'Say I understand that once you turn 65 you can get a waiver on this transportation fee,” he explained. “(The city said) Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah - you can do that.’ I said, okay I want the waiver."
But, Stratton feels he shouldn’t have had to make that call.
"So, they knew the day I turned 65,” he said. “The city knew it, because it's on the records. They have my social security number and everything else. So, they know when I turned 65-years-old. And, they chose, instead of giving me the waiver as they should have, they chose to continue to collect that money - knowing that I would probably never find out about it."
So, what does Stratton think the City of Austin should do?
"They should be required to reimburse everyone they've overcharged all these years,” he said. “You should be required to pay them that money back. They're not going to. At the very least," Stratton said, "We've got to stop the city from charging people what they don't need to be charged for. It's not right. And, that's all I want to see. I want it stopped."
FOX 7 contacted the city about the issue.
In an email, a spokesperson with the Public Works Department told us:
“More than 7 years ago, we would include exemption inserts in utility bills every 6 months or so. We did this for several years but customers complained that their bills were too cumbersome and, in an effort to minimize paper waste, we discontinued this practice.”
As for getting an exemption, the city said:
“Like other exemptions that are available from the government, such as federal tax exemptions, it is incumbent upon the citizen to apply for the exemption for the particular fee or tax. Note: If it is determined that a user is entitled to an exemption under current code, then the fee will be removed from the customer’s bill within 1 to 2 billing cycles, but the Code states that any fees paid before an exemption is claimed may not be refunded. Public Works is currently working with Austin Energy, who manages the billing system, to include information on the utility bill to notify customers about the TUF exemption for rate payers over 65 years of age. Since this issue has been brought to our attention, we have added information regarding eligibility requirements for this exemption and a verification form to our department webpage, and we will continue to look for ways to be more transparent for our citizens.”
In fact, the City of Austin changed its website for the Transportation User Fee after FOX 7 contacted them.
On Thursday, the city site had a small disclaimer about the exemption.
On Friday, it was more prominent and in a bolder print.
The city is also now asking you to fill out an application, which they didn’t before. And, in November, the Transportation User fee jumps to $11.52 per month for a house – as approved by the city council.
To request an exemption, if you’re at least 65-years-old or you don’t own or use a vehicle, click here.
Customers can also call 311.