Consumer advocate requests audit of AE’s Customer Assistance Program
BY LINA FISHER, THE AUSTIN CHRONICLE, FRI., JAN. 29, 2021
One of the homes Robbins has identified as receiving discounts through Austin Energy’s Customer Assistance Program, which is intended to assist low-income customers (note the private tennis court) (Courtesy of Paul Robbins)
Last Thursday, Paul Robbins, a longtime local consumer advocate and environmental activist, filed a complaint with the Office of the City Auditor over Austin Energy‘s $18 million Customer Assistance Program (CAP) discounts – designed to help lower-income customers with utility bills but in practice being offered to owners of some very expensive properties.
Paul Robbins’ chief question for the auditor is how Austin Energy determines customers are income-restricted, given their apparent wealth in real estate assets.
In his six years of digging into the CAP system, Robbins has identified many more loopholes and inefficiencies, which he outlines in his complaint with OCA. Chief among them is that CAP eligibility is unlinked to AE’s progressive residential electric rate structure, which has five tiers; the high-usage customers (for example, the large mansions Robbins calls out in his report) pay more than the lower tiers. Ideally, Robbins says, “This does two things: It incentivizes conservation and simultaneously helps the poor, who use less energy on an average basis. But some people on CAP do use electricity in these higher tiers.” His complaint cites data from 2015 in which 21% of customers with CAP discounts were fourth- and fifth-tier energy users.
In the report, Robbins details the multiple instances in which AE has refused to provide information, or provided it after much delay, over the past six years. That’s why he’s taken this step: “They can stay up nights trying to figure out ways to keep public information from me, but they can’t do that to the auditor.”
Clarification: The estate in this photo above is indeed owned by a customer receiving CAP, but the CAP discount is going to another home owned by the same customer.