WESTWOOD?An overlooked billing error led to years of utility tax underpayment by natural gas users in the Fairview Independent School District, and now the district is set to recoup some of the money — at no cost to the users.
Correcting the error will bring the district a lump sum of roughly $84,000 for taxes owed and will add about half that amount per year to the receipts it already receives, according to Superintendent Jackie Risden-Smith.
Columbia Gas, the supplier, has agreed to pay the arrearage and not bill customers for it.
“There was an error and the school tax was not applied to some of our customer bills,”?said Columbia Gas spokeswoman Lisa Smith. “We’re going to make good on it.”
Risden-Smith did not have firm numbers but based her preliminary estimate on $5 per month for each of the customers who were not billed for the tax prior to February. The obligation to pay the arrearage goes back two years. The final dollar figure could be higher or lower.
The customers affected are mostly small residential accounts because larger business and industrial users pay utility taxes directly to the state, which in turn sends the district its share.
Because of a coding error, some 862 customers were billed as exempt from the tax, according to Risden-Smith. A?few of those are in other districts and Risden-Smith is basing her estimate on the premise that about 700 are in Fairview.
Risden-Smith had initially thought about 100 customers were affected and expected the final tally would bring the district about $6,000. “I was shocked at the number when all figures were finalized at the end of February,”?she wrote in a text message.
Pinpointing the error took some digging. Risden-Smith got wind of the error when some district residents told her their gas bills did not reflect the tax.
“I noticed it on my gas bill several years ago,”?said George Stout of Westwood, who was one of them. “I?talked to previous administrators two or three times.” When Risden-Smith came to the district in July, he brought it up again. “She was gung ho on it,”?he said.
It took weeks of work and submitting a list of all 1,109 Columbia Gas customers in the district to the company to get results.
“My concern was, is Columbia Gas going to want customers to pay — I didn’t want that to happen. The financial burden would be terrible,”?she said.
However, the company agreed to pay two years of back taxes to the district and not bill customers. “They’ve owned their mistake and they’re fixing it,”?she said.
The customers affected will now start seeing the charge on their monthly bills. “I’ll have to pay about $36 more a year. It’s something the people voted on so they shouldn’t have any problem paying it,”?Stout said. “The school system has taken a beating when it lost the AK?Steel money. When a school system goes under in a small community, it loses its identity. I’d hate to see that happen in the Fairview area.”