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Ex-lawmaker’s lawsuit accuses El Paso of hiding tax increases in water bills

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A lawsuit by former state Rep. Joe Pickett alleges the city of El Paso is hiding tax increases in water bills, using a fee that purportedly is to pay for damages to streets caused by the city’s own sanitation trucks.

Joe Pickett

In the lawsuit, Pickett seeks damages of up to $100,000 and a declaratory judgment preventing the future application of the city of El Paso’s environmental service franchise fee to Pickett or his property.

“You need to be transparent and tell me that part of my taxes are raised by taxes. But charging a fee on the garbage bill and not telling me what it’s for is not transparency,” said Pickett, who served on City Council in the early 1990s and then in the Texas House of Representatives from 1995 to 2019. “That’s not truth in taxation and I think the city is so wrong, I think they’re illegally charging and collecting fees that should be notated as taxes.”

The city has not responded to a request from El Paso Matters for comment on the lawsuit, which was filed in October.

The lawsuit targets an environmental services franchise fee that was established in water bills to cover the cost of wear and tear on city rights-of-way caused by city sanitation vehicles. The fee varies by the type of property. City sanitation fees are collected in bills from El Paso Water, which provides water, wastewater and stormwater services in the city limits.

The city’s fiscal year 2020 budget resolution adopted in August 2019, listed the following uses for the fees: $6.6 for residential street maintenance, $2.7 million to purchase Fire Department vehicles and  $1.3 million for Police Department major capital equipment, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says the city hasn’t shown how it identified the costs of the “wear and tear on the City’s rights-of-way caused by the use of the city sanitation vehicles in providing the utility service.” 

It also says that “$4 million of the approximately $10.6 million to be collected annually through this fee will be used for purposes completely unrelated to the statutory authority for the fee, which is only to be used for solid waste disposal services.”

Pickett said he filed the lawsuit, in part, because city officials never responded to his questions about the fee and how it was being used.

In a January court filing, the city said an employee signed for a copy of the lawsuit in November that was sent by certified mail. The city then lost the copy of the  lawsuit, according to the filing, which went on to say the city denied Pickett’s allegations.

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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