Energy in the News: Austin Energy to reform its discounts to low-income customers

How one man got Austin Energy to reform its discounts to low-income customers

Jack Craver, Reporter, Energy Industry, Energy Central            March 21, 2018

Paul Robbins has been a thorn in the side of Austin Energy for decades. The longtime environmentalist and consumer advocate comes to City Council meetings regularly to bemoan bad decisions by the municipally-owned utility.

One of his most prominent crusades has been against wasted money in the utility’s Consumer Assistance Program, which is supposed to offer discounts to low-income ratepayers. Robbins, however, has long contended that many of the program’s beneficiaries aren’t low-income at all. He has done this by highlighting expensive homes –– some exceeding $1 million –– that are enlisted in the program.

In presentations to City Council, Robbins displayed photos of the magnificent homes that some of the program beneficiaries live in.

Energy in the News: Council rejects appeal of gas conservation fees    

This story is about misspending of public funds meant for energy efficiency.  If environmentalists do not advocate spending this money wisely, the public will lose trust in us.

Council rejects appeal of gas conservation fees                Wednesday, February 7, 2018 by Jo Clifton, The Austin Monitor

 City Council on Thursday rejected an appeal from environmental and consumer activist Paul Robbins to overturn a staff decision to accept Texas Gas Service’s 2018 conservation adjustment clause rate. The conservation adjustment clause rate is the extra money consumers pay for the utility to fund its conservation programs, such as rebates for appliances and attic insulation.

In addition to Troxclair, Council members Jimmy Flannigan and Ann Kitchen and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo seemed interested in following up on the questions Robbins raised in his appeal.

Flannigan thanked Robbins. “You know, sometimes – I’m going to say this with love because I’ve been described this way too. Sometimes a passionate nutjob is what you need. And I’ve been that guy from time to time myself, and so thank you for sticking with it and hopefully we’ll have a more substantive conversation next year.”

Photo by Lisafern (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Energy in the News: Utility Fixing Customer Assistance Program

Monday, September 25, 2017 by Jo Clifton, The Austin Monitor 

Last week, after City Council adopted the Fiscal Year 2017-18 budget, longtime Austin environmental advocate and Austin Energy critic Paul Robbins had something to celebrate. Robbins had been asking Council to reform Austin Energy’s Customer Assistance Program since 2014 and the new budget includes direction to do just that.

…Robbins discovered that several hundred customers on the program, called CAP, had pricey real estate holdings and were not necessarily the low-income people the program was intended to serve.

…Under the new rules adopted by Council, customers will be removed from the program if their home is valued at $250,000 or more and the household income is greater than 200 percent of the federal poverty level guidelines. In addition, CAP customers who own two or more properties within Austin Energy’s service territory and whose income is greater than 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines will be considered ineligible.

Energy in the News: Other People’s Money?

Public Notice: Other People’s Money                                            Actually, it’s yours. Do you know where it’s going?                       NICK BARBARO, FRI., AUG. 4, 2017, The Austin Chronicle

Last week I wrote about The Austin Environmental Directory 2017-18, a ninth-edition resource recently released by utility and consumer watchdog Paul Robbins. This week Robbins is at it again, releasing another long-awaited follow-up report, titled Misguided Charity, charging that money from Austin Energy’s Customer Assist­ance Program (CAP) – those voluntary contributions that utility customers can make to defray costs for the needy, (*but also a percentage of every utility bill you pay) – is in some cases going instead to wealthy property owners, and to subsidize wasteful consumption.

In this new report, Robbins makes two major policy recommendations: First, that the program should “verify that customers who live in properties with high improvement values really do have low incomes. Council unanimously budgeted money for this in August of 2016 … This could be enacted in a matter of weeks.” Second, and perhaps even easier, would be for AE to eliminate the CAP discount for high-volume electricity users – specifically the fourth and fifth tiers of consumption. “This is just wrong!” Robbins said in a separate email. “The practice encourages waste, while at the same time depriving the average CAP participant of additional discount money.” He estimates this move alone could save the utility some $2 million a year, enough to “increase the average electric discount of $250 a year by about $60.”

Appendices include a “Parade of Homes” – photos and stats on luxury homes that were receiving the CAP discounts as of this January – plus a list of some 56 “CAP Customers With More Than $1 Million in Real Estate Assets.” The report is being distributed to Council and others today, Aug. 3, and will soon be available for download at www.environmentaldirectory.info.

Energy in the News: High-dollar homes still benefiting from utility discount    

Some high-dollar homes still benefiting from Austin Energy utility discount                                                                               Updated: Aug 03, 2017 02:30 PM CDT, Kylie McGivern, KXAN News

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Austin Energy customers rack up those high energy costs this hot summer, they’re helping foot the bill for the city’s low-income utility discount. But KXAN discovered that the $16 million fund is also benefiting million-dollar homes.

It’s a problem KXAN first revealed back in 2014, after which, Austin Energy promised to fix the system meant for the people who need it most. KXAN asked what’s taking the utility so long to right this wrong.

For the past three years, KXAN has followed Paul Robbins’ work. In that time, the consumer advocate has spent countless hours trying to fix the Customer Assistance Program (CAP), what he calls a “broken program.”

Energy In the News: City Council nixes Austin Energy’s base rate hike

City Council nixes Austin Energy’s base rate hike, approves new rates

By Nolan Hicks – American-Statesman Staff

Posted: 3:17 p.m. Monday, Aug. 29, 2016

The Austin City Council unanimously approved Austin Energy’s bid to redo its residential electric rates Monday, after the city-owned utility dropped its controversial proposal to increase its base electric rate….

The base rate fight quickly became a battle over who would ultimately pick up the tab: millionaires living in energy-efficient downtown condos or poor families who don’t use much electricity simply because they can’t afford it.

 a review of yearly data from Austin Energy by local activist Paul Robbins found that on average — over 12 months — lower income meant lower energy use.

 

Energy in the News: Low income program still benefiting million-dollar households

Low income program still benefiting million-dollar households

By: Kylie McGivernUpdated: Feb 25, 2016 05:36 PM CST

 

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A city program meant to provide utility bill discounts for those in need is still giving money to customers who live in million-dollar homes.

“There is only so much money that is dedicated to the poor people, so it needs to go to the right people for the right reason,” consumer advocate Paul Robbins said.

KXAN first sat down with Robbins and Austin Energy about the issue in December 2014. All this time later, “There are still mansions on the Customer Assistance Program,” Robbins said.

Energy in the News: Utility takes steps to fix discount program

Utility takes steps to fix Austin’s bill discount program


After utility activist Paul Robbins exposed problems in the city’s utility discount program, with residents of higher-value homes being enrolled in a program designed to help poor people, Austin Energy has tightened up its screening process.

Ronnie Mendoza, who runs the Customer Assistance Program, said the old way erred on the side of enrolling people who weren’t a perfect match. But that old system also made it possible to enroll people who weren’t really eligible.

Austin Energy plans to further tighten its enrollment process by no longer automatically enrolling people who have homes valued over $250,000 (not including land value). Gutierrez explained the utility will send letters to people who are no longer automatically enrolled due to high home values and invite them to contact the utility if they believe they are eligible. They plan to implement that change in mid-October.

Energy In the News: Program intended to help poor sometimes benefits wealthy

Program intended to help poor sometimes benefits wealthy

Andy Pierrotti, KVUE10:07 p.m. CDT July 13, 2015

AUSTIN — A KVUE Defenders investigation uncovered an Austin Energy program intended to help the poor sometimes benefits the wealthy, too.

One of those multi-million dollar homes is located on Lake Austin. Real estate records show the home valued at $3.9 million has an elevator and a movie theater. Another home once enrolled in CAP is 8,000 square feet with eight bathrooms, and is valued at $3.7 million.

“If you’re going to spend large sums of money, you need to reassure it’s going to the right people for the right purpose,” said Robbins.

Energy in the News: Throwing money at problems is not helping Austin’s poor

Robbins: Throwing money at problems is not helping Austin’s poor

By Paul Robbins – Special to the American-Statesman, Monday, June 8, 2015

Austin has one of the highest, if not the highest, costs of living in Texas. The situation is so bad that, according to an analysis of Census data, many poor people are leaving the city, moving to surrounding areas because they cannot make ends meet. One would think that utility programs put in place by the city of Austin to assist low-income people are essential to helping these residents survive. When poorly planned, however, the programs waste scarce resources, providing reasons for fiscal conservatives to be cynical about their effectiveness.

Last fall, I investigated inefficiencies in a utility bill assistance program run by the city, the Customer Assistance Program, known as CAP. I discovered that CAP, which gives rate relief to low-income customers, was giving money to wealthy people as well as poor ones.

Over 1,100 customers in homes worth more than $300,000 were receiving CAP funds. While some of these were understandable, such as small homes in gentrified neighborhoods, many others were unmistakably wealthy. One 8,100-square-foot Lake Austin mansion worth about $4 million had its own indoor movie theater. Another CAP recipient owned 44 properties collectively worth $10.7 million.

This is one of several examples where Austin has thrown money at aproblem without thinking it through. Unfortunately, the list goes on.

CAP gives a 10 percent electric rate discount no matter how much a customer uses. While many people receiving assistance are frugal, some consume much more than average. In these cases, CAP is subsidizing waste. Assistance from the city should be going for basic needs, not to pay for luxury.

Another bad example is the city’s free weatherization effort to help poor people save energy. The federal government had a number of stimulus programs to get the country out of the 2008 recession. One of these gave about 2,000 Austin homes free weatherization and appliances, including central air conditioners.

While this may have stimulated the economy, it did not do much to lower bills. A survey of these homes showed so little energy reduction that the average payback on electricity savings would be over 59 years. You could literally give money away as rate relief and do better than this. The saddest part is there is a serious effort by some low-income advocates to expand this failure.

Yet another bad example is the utility’s debt expense. Austin Energyis losing $21 million a year from unpaid bills, much higher than two years ago. In late 2013, the Austin City Council was urged by some low-income advocates to come up with a lenient cutoff policy. The idea was, “Give customers extended payment arrangements, and you will get more of the city’s money back.”

It did not work. Nineteen months later, advocates are asking for still more time. Meanwhile, most people on these extended payment arrangements are getting further behind on their bills, some to the point where they will never dig out because their debt is so high.

The failures in these programs, taken as a pattern, do not inspire confidence.

The poor pay for these mistakes as well as the rest of us. Directly, they pay for failed conservation programs that save almost no energy. Many low- and moderate-income customers also pay for CAP, even when it goes to the wrong people. Poor people that are current on their bills pay for the bad debt of people who are not. In 2014, the lost revenue amounted to $48 for the average Austin residential ratepayer, accelerating the need for a new rate increase.

The poor also pay indirectly. If 10 percent of CAP is lost because of a flawed enrollment system or discounts for high consumption, that is $1.4 million a year wasted. Money spent on failed weatherization programs that save almost no energy is diverted from energy-saving programs that are effective.

If the city wants to help the poor effectively, it needs to stop throwing money at problems. Low-income assistance programs will never have enough money. The funds that are available need to be spent strategically and carefully.

Robbins has been a consumer advocate since 1977.