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Council approves smaller set of changes to city’s utility billing codes

Tuesday, June 25, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Council members agreed last week to move forward with a smaller set of changes to the portion of city code that governs billing appeals for the city’s utilities. In so doing, they also agreed to hold off on other changes to the billing code, ones that raised issues for the city boards that govern the Austin Water Utility and Austin Energy.


The new code will allow Austin ratepayers to appeal more types of utility rulings. It also establishes a new criminal classification for tampering with utility equipment. After input from the Water and Wastewater Commission and the Electric Utility Commission, the code also lengthens from three to 10 days before a scheduled hearing the amount of time that the city has to notify ratepayers that the hearing will be conducted.


However, it leaves out other changes that both the Water and Wastewater Commission and the Electric Utility Commission balked at in the past two weeks. EUC Commissioner Philip Schmandt went so far as to suggest the some portions of staff’s changes may conflict with state law.


In response to those concerns, utility staff sent a memo to Mayor and Council informing them that they would delete those revisions for the time being. The proposed changes were considered by both the Water and Wastewater Commission and the Electric Utility Commission.


“At the EUC meeting on June 17, 2013, members expressed concern with language related to billing process adjustments,” it reads. “As a result, the EUC approved a motion to deny approval as presented and postpone consideration of the proposed changes. The billing process adjustments were an attempt by staff to clear up terminology – entirely administrative in nature and separate from the proposed changes to the Administrative Review and Hearing under Article 12. However, based on concerns raised at commission meetings, Austin Energy proposes to sever (those) changes… at this time and requests that Council consider changes to the Administrative Review and Hearing section only.”


Council Member Kathie Tovo wondered if it might make sense to postpone the entire set of changes until Water and Wastewater and Electric Utility Commissioners had a chance to weigh in on it again. Austin Energy Vice President of Customer Care Jawana Gutierrez told Tovo that any delay could further complicate matters.


Gutierrez noted that a contract that the utility holds with its hearing officer is set to be completed in July. Changes in the billing code – specifically those that deal with hearings – are set to be included in the new agreement. Postponement by Council would have extended that process through at least August, when Council returns from its annual summer break.


There were also concerns that ratepayers who might otherwise be eligible for hearings would lose that opportunity if Council delayed action until August thanks to a 90-day limit for appeal.


Deputy General Manager Kerry Overton later added that Council members could come back and revisit any portion of the changes at any time.


Council approved the revised changes to the code unanimously. Council Member Laura Morrison added a set of directions. “We understand that there are continuing issues to be discussed and hopefully this section that we pass today will be considered for improvement or recommendation from the EUC,” she offered.

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