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Shudde Fath: Continuing the good fight at 95

Friday, July 1, 2011 by Bill McCann

Shudde Bess Bryson Fath, grande dame of Austin citizen activists, is a case study in longevity and perseverance when it comes to life and electric rates.


That perseverance – as well as her decades of experience with Austin Energy, the city-owned electric utility – could be particularly evident this summer and fall as the utility considers an average 12 percent rate increase, the first in 17 years.


During the past 40 years Fath has been in the middle of many landmark battles over energy and the environment. She spoke up for Barton Springs where she swam for many years; and with her daughter, removed illegal signs tacked to utility poles. She campaigned to get environmental and neighborhood candidates elected to the City Council. But she is best known for her role on the Council’s advisory Electric Utility Commission (EUC), where she has used her accounting experience to look out for residential and small business customers. Her 34-year tenure on the EUC is unmatched in Austin city government.


Fath also measures longevity in other ways. She was married to businessman and activist Conrad Fath for 52 years before his death in 1990. She has lived in the Zilker neighborhood for 60 years. She worked for more than 42 years at the former Texas Employment Commission. A board member of the Save Barton Creek Association since 1981, she was its treasurer for 29 years until this year. 


At 95, Fath may have slowed down, but her mind is still sharp. And she thinks she has enough energy for at least one more good fight – over Austin Energy’s planned rate increase, which she fears may fall most heavily on residential and small business customers. Electric rates first riled her in the 1950s, helped propel her into community activism starting in the 1970s, and over the years earned her the respect of community, business and political leaders alike.


Her volunteer work has earned her numerous awards. She has an 83-acre tract of city water quality protection lands named for her as well as a conference room at Austin Energy’s offices in the Town Lake Center. And she has her very own designated space in the center’s parking lot for her 27 year-old station wagon.  


To learn more about this Austin icon, In Fact Daily spent several hours talking to her recently about her life and the politics of electricity in Austin.


Early days


Fath, one of six children of Lily and Dr. J. Gordon Bryson, was born in Bastrop in 1916, a year before the U.S. entered World War I. Her parents were active in the community. Her father was a family doctor who started the first hospital in Bastrop. He was elected mayor twice and was president of the school board.


She loved athletics and was particularly good at tennis. There were 18 students in her Bastrop High School graduating class. She was the valedictorian.


She graduated with highest honors from The University of Texas at Austin in 1937 with a business degree, and in 1938 was hired at the Texas Employment Commission. She retired as a chief accountant in 1981, the year after she won a major out-of-court settlement with the commission over sex discrimination. In 1938 she married Conrad “Connie” Fath, whom she had met at UT. They moved to the Zilker neighborhood in 1951, the year their daughter Betsy was born.


Connie was an entrepreneur and fishing aficionado. He sold fishing gear and bait and later operated an Evinrude marine dealership on Barton Springs Road. She kept the books. Fath recalls that she first got upset about electric rates in the mid 1950s, after they installed air conditioning at Connie’s business for the first time.


“When I was doing the books, I noticed that the electric bills were going up. So I called the utility,” she said. “That’s when I learned that the big boys got cheaper rates than the little guys. The same wires that went by our shop also went downtown where they were getting the cheaper rates. I thought that was unfair.”


In 1973 she read about a proposed electric rate increase that would add to the burden on residential customers.  She began advocating for flat rates for all customer classes, even taking out a small ad in the newspaper.


By 1975 Fath had gotten enough attention that Mayor Jeff Friedman appointed her to his Mayor’s Commission on Electric Rates. Two years later, Mayor Carole McClellan, who won the mayor’s seat after Friedman decided not to run again, appointed her to the new Electric Utility Commission, created from a recommendation by the mayor’s commission. Fath recalls that outgoing Mayor Friedman had four appointments to the EUC and McClellan (now Strayhorn) had five. The City Council years later changed the EUC from nine members to seven, where it remains today.


“We had staggered terms so we had to draw lots for one or two-year terms,” she said. “I was sitting next to Peck Young. He drew a 1 and I drew a 2. We didn’t say anything to one another. We just switched numbers. We knew that McClellan might appoint me again, but she would never appoint Peck, who had worked on Friedman’s campaign.”


Young, then a political campaign consultant, later became chair of the EUC and was one of Fath’s favorite cohorts during her 34-year tenure. “Peck liked to wisecrack, but he understood the politics and he was so smart.” Young is now director of the Center for Public Policy & Political Studies at Austin Community College.


Landmark campaigns


Electric rates stayed on the front burner, and then caught fire in 1980, when a group of activists plotted to make rates a political issue.


“I remember that a bunch of us sat around a metal table on Sunday afternoons at the ACORN office on West Mary Street to plan a public strategy over rates,” she said. “There were Teresa Reel, Jack Jackson of ACORN, Larry Deuser, Peck Young, Ruby Goodwin, Connie and me. Through Council Member Richard Goodman, we got the utility staff to run various rate studies. We had this long list of proposals and settled on Proposal 7 as the fairest.”


They started up an organization called the RATERS Coalition, for Reform Austin’s Terrible Electric Rate Structure. Connie Fath was chair. They got thousands of signatures and the endorsement of 61 organizations for Proposal 7, which was innovative because it included a “lifeline” rate in which customers using 500 kilowatt-hours a month or less paid a lower rate.


They also got a public hearing before the City Council. At the hearing, Connie Fath stood up before a packed house and started reading off all of the groups that supported Proposal 7, she recalls. “Every time he read a name, there was wild cheering and you could see that Mayor McClellan was having a fit. We knew we did not have the votes, but we got public attention.”


The electric rate issue was not the only big battle in which local activists were engaged in those days. The community was split over Austin’s involvement in the South Texas Project nuclear plant, going back to 1973 when voters narrowly approved the city’s participation to the tune of $161 million. After that vote, critics got the issue back on the ballot in 1976 and in 1979, but both times voters decided against selling the city’s share of the project.


Meanwhile, local citizen activists mapped out a major campaign to get their candidates on the City Council. Working through an informal group, called the River City Coordinating Council that met monthly in the Faths’ living room, they plotted strategies to elect like-minded people. The 1981 Council election was a turning point for the city, Fath says. While McClellan beat Bob Binder, whom the activists supported for mayor, the majority of the candidates that they were supporting won, including Roger Duncan, Larry Deuser and Charles Urdy. John Treviño and Richard Goodman, whom they also backed, were re-elected.


The new Council passed Proposal 7 and got the nuclear plant issue back on the ballot. This time the voters authorized the city to sell its share. But by then it was too late. There were no buyers. The city still owns its 16 percent share today and ratepayers will continue to pay the debt on it until 2021, Fath points out.


Over the years the question of what is the relative cost to serve each customer class has been the big issue on rates, Fath says. “It seems we have fought over cost-of-service methodology forever. But in the end it is a political decision and the big guys usually win.”


She recalls the big rate debate in 1994. “The EUC took 23 separate votes over the rate structure, that’s how complicated it was. Then after the EUC made its recommendations, the utility staff negotiated lower rates with industrial customers over the weekend and the Council voted for it. So much for cost of service.”


Rates and revenues


She likes to hand out a chart that she extracted from the utility staff a couple of years ago. The chart shows the history of base rates (not including fuel charges) that residential, commercial and industrial customers paid going back three decades. It shows that all three classes paid under 3 cents a kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s, with residential actually dipping below 2 cents for a couple of years. By the late 1980s that changed, as residential customers paid near 5 cents a kilowatt-hour and industrials paid less than 4 cents. That gap got even bigger as large industrial customers received rate reductions in 1989, 1994, 1997 and 2007, the chart shows. Large industrials paid about 2.8 cents a kilowatt-hour in 2008 – roughly the same base rate they were paying in 1985 – while rates of residential customers had doubled to 5.8 cents a kilowatt-hour, it shows.            


Austin Energy officials are reviewing current rates, with the objective of increasing revenues by 12 percent to meet what they say is needed to meet its $1.1 billion annual operating needs. On Sept. 1, the utility is to present proposed rate changes to the EUC, which will hold several public meetings before making recommendations to the City Council in the fall. Fath says that she and other commission members will be asking the utility hard questions, not only about the cost of service but about the utility budget as well. 


“The people of Austin own the electric utility and fortunately it has had good management and staff over the years,” Fath says. “The money it has generated for the city over more than 100 years has been a financial cushion that has allowed Austin to become a superior city. It has kept taxes down and allowed the city to spend money on public facilities and parks. But there are limits.”


Austin Energy has been the city’s “cash cow” for many years, Fath continues. Not only will the utility transfer $103 million of its revenues this year into the city’s General Fund to pay for such things as parks, fire and police, it also will pay for another roughly $40 million of city expenses, including $9.5 million for the  economic development program, she says. “My contention is that economic development is the job of the Chamber of Commerce or the city’s General Fund, not Austin Energy.”


Fath is not alone in that thinking. The EUC has passed several resolutions since 2007 addressing this issue and urging that the city remove from Austin Energy’s budget certain expenditures that do not directly relate to the utility’s business.


“If the City Councils over the years had not been moving so much money from the utility to pay for other programs, there might not be a need for a rate increase today, or certainly any increase would be much smaller,” Fath argues. “We have been telling them for years, not just this Council. They know it, but they do not do anything about it.”


Meanwhile, Fath says she will keeping plugging along at the EUC, asking questions and trying to come up with fair and equitable recommendations. She is confident that the current EUC will do that because, from her view, it is one of the most competent EUC panels on which she has served.


Asked why she continues to keep at it, Fath recalls her recent invitation to speak to a University of Texas graduate social work class that was hearing from senior citizens. “When it was time for me to talk, my message was basically that you’ve got to give a damn about something – and I still give a damn.”

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