This year, the average City of Austin utility customer who receives electric, water and drainage bills will pay roughly $30 to fund discounts for low-income ratepayers. In some cases, this Customer Assistance Program (CAP) can prevent a household from choosing between food or utilities in these pandemic-ravaged times. Austin Energy and Austin Water expect to put a total $17.5 million toward these discounts this year.
Most Austinites might be proud to live in such a compassionate city. But some of these funds go to people who don’t need the help, or they fail to promote the energy savings that Austin residents should expect.
In December 2014, the Austin American-Statesman ran a front-page story reporting an analysis I conducted of CAP recipients. It revealed some of the CAP discounts intended for the poor were inadvertently routed to people who lived in expensive homes or owned more than one property.
CAP was automatically providing utility bill discounts to people who participated in certain social service programs,such Supplemental Security Income or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, assuming this was a proxy for a low-income household. No one checked to see whether these customers lived in a larger or wealthier home. An affluent family could still end up on the list if, for example, they have a foster child on CHIP, or an elderly parent in the home receiving SSI.