by Olivia Beck
October 15, 2015
If you live in the Travis County Water Control and Improvement District 17 (WCID 17) service area, you probably noticed an increase in your water bill over the last few months. In fact, enough people noticed that WCID 17 posted a public notice explaining to customers the cause for the increase: As a result of summer rains replenishing the Highland Lakes, WCID 17 customers are now allowed to water their lawns twice a week rather than once a week. Weekly watering had been the norm since May 2012, so “many customers simply forgot” the impact of increased watering on their bills.
Yet, less than five weeks after WCID 17 posted their notice to address the public’s concern, the WCID 17 Board of Directors approved proposed water rate increases at their regularly scheduled (and open to the public) meeting with no complaints or concerns from its customers. Only one citizen spoke during the public hearing, commenting that – due to WCID 17’s growth and the impacts of climate change – WCID 17 should charge more money to secure water rights for the future.
Customers clearly pay attention to and care about their water bills. Yet, of the more than 30,000 people served by WCID 17, only one person was concerned enough about water rates to speak publicly at the meeting (and he proposed increasing the rates). The board meeting agenda was posted online in accordance with legal requirements, and the proposed rate increase and hearing information were published in a local newspaper. If people care so much about their water rates and if the proposed increases were well-advertised, why aren’t more people at the board meetings?
Civic engagement is hard to prioritize. Between work, school, and family, spare time is hard to come by, and it’s much easier to find the five minutes to call your water provider and ask about your bill than it is to find the time to read agendas and actually attend a meeting. Still, the benefits of being involved cannot be overstated: staying up-to-date and informed in local politics means you can be a better advocate for your family’s needs, including and especially when it comes to issues such as rate increases. More than that, participation is easier than ever with current technology. After the one citizen spoke at the WCID 17 board meeting, the Board also asked if anyone had sent any comments by mail or email. (No one had.)
Local government directly impacts our day-to-day lives. If we want our opinions, values, and pocketbooks to be taken into consideration, we have to voice our concerns to the decision-makers themselves. When a local governing agency has a public meeting, skim through the agenda. If something catches your eye, attend the meeting if you can, but at least submit your response electronically if you can’t! It may help you avoid (or implement) the next rate increase.