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EUC fails to approve resolution to remove same-day reconnect fee

Wednesday, July 17, 2013 by Michael Kanin

A resolution proposed Monday by the City of Austin’s Electric Utility Commission would remove a $55 reconnection fee charged to Austin Energy customers seeking same-day re-establishment of electric service.

 

Despite the best efforts of commission Vice Chair Karen Hadden, only she and Commission Chair Bernie Bernfeld voted for the idea. The rest of their present colleagues – Shudde Fath, Linda Shaw, and new commissioner Clay Butler – abstained.

 

Butler worried about the haste involved: “I know there is an urgency to get this passed, but if we’re making a recommendation that’s not feasible…”

 

Hadden cut him off. “I would say City Council is still going to have a chance to vote on this and this is something that has been looked at and talked about and talked to death for several years,” she said. “We’re, right now, in the hot time of year and I think this is fully reasonable and that Austin Energy can find a way to work it out.”

 

(Fath later pointed out that the utility is not in the practice of cutting off power when the heat index rises over 100 degrees.)

 

Varun Rai, another recently appointed commissioner was absent Monday. The seat vacated by Steve Smaha has yet to be filled.

 

The utility will now study the measure and return with an idea of what its impact might be. After the vote failed, Fath asked Austin Energy staff to return in August with a clearer picture of what the fee change might mean for the utility.

 

It was not immediately clear what the financial implications of Hadden’s resolution would be for the utility. However, Monday evening, Austin Energy Vice President of Customer Care J.J. Gutierrez reminded commissioners that the utility’s smart meters – so called thanks to the possibility of remote functions, including connection and disconnection – were not yet capable of such activity. This means that Austin Energy staff must manually perform that service at an administrative cost to the organization.

 

The commissions’ resolution would leave a $25 reconnection fee in place. It would also establish a cut-off time of 4pm for verified payments to clear Austin Energy accounting in order for utility customers to expect same-day reconnection service. Under the proposed resolution, any customer whose payment is verified by the utility before the cutoff time would have their service reconnected the same day.

 

For her part, Hadden told her colleagues that she believes that the utility’s practice of charging the $55 fee was onerous. “When you add the $55 on for someone who is already having a hard time paying their bills, I am concerned about…(the fact) that that means that somebody who has groceries in the refrigerator, they may go bad,” she said. “I mean, you can’t not have that power in place.”

 

Later, Hadden also argued that other utilities do not impose the same sort of same-day fee. “Only Pedernales, Oncor, and Center Point have any same-day service fee,” she said. “For Oncor it’s only $3.10 to reconnect and $5.30 for the same day reconnection.”

 

Hadden added that the Center Point fee is $9 for reconnection and $34 for same day service.

 

Commissioners set the 4 pm cutoff after some debate. Discussion included some concern from Austin Energy Deputy General Manager Kerry Overton, who worried about the utility’s inability to review the deadline. “We need to go study this,” he said, adding that he felt that staff would be “completely speculating” if they addressed a cut-off time Monday.

 

Bernfeld noted that the commission could change the cutoff time at any point. He called for immediate action. “It’s been brought up and drug through so many times, I think the feeling is that something needs to be laid out here so that it raises it’s visibility more,” Bernfeld said.

 

It was not enough to sway his colleagues.

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