City Hall, where water bills can be paid in person. Some residents complained the city disconnected their water without notice. 

Palestine City Council members on Monday ought to make sure no residents are penalized for the city's failure to notify customers of a change in their water bills.

Council members need to make the policy on refunds explicit: The city will compensate all customers for any late or re-connect fees caused by confusion over the last bill's due date.

Last month, to bring the billing cycle in line with city ordinance, Finance Director Jim Mahoney changed it from 30 days to 20 days. Because he didn't notify customers, however, some people incurred late fees or temporarily lost water service.

Rolling out a billing cycle change is a policy matter under the city council's purview. In truth, the change should have first been discussed with council members.

The city should have announced the billing change two months in advance, and used the local newspaper to help spread the word.

Last week, Mahoney said residents with no disconnections would be eligible to have the charges removed from their bills, or credited toward the next bill.

“Habitual offenders,” however, would not get compensated.

That plan would tend to penalize the city's poorest residents. Scofflaws may account for some of the disconnections, but Palestine also has residents who have to choose between paying their utility bills on time and putting food on the table.

There are several other reasons to avoid selective refunds.

As a practical matter, how would the city define “habitual offender.” How many times in a year constitutes “habitual?” Any number would be arbitrary and unfair.

Second, the city should not make policy decisions based on assumptions. It's illogical to assume customers who have been disconnected before would have been disconnected this time, even if the due date remained the same.

Finally, customers with past disconnections have been penalized for them. They shouldn't get hit again for the city's oversight.

Mahoney told the Herald-Press editorial page Thursday the newspaper's story about water billing was incorrect. When asked repeatedly where the newspaper had erred, however, Mahoney wouldn't say. “I'm going to hold off and speak about in council,” he said.

The new city administration has made following the rules and accountability a major issue – and rightly so. That also goes for employees at the top. Charging city residents for an oversight by the administration is not exercising accountability. Council members should make it right.

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