Monday, November 2, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Low-Income Weatherization Program scrutinized

The Office of the City Auditor and the City Council Audit and Finance Committee put Austin Energy’s Low-Income Weatherization Program under the microscope on Wednesday, finding that customers are satisfied with the program overall but that it needs improvement.

The program, which Austin Energy has run since 1982, provides certain weatherization and health-related services to low-income customers free of charge in order to help them conserve energy, reduce their bills and stay safe at home. These services include installing attic insulation and solar screens, replacing or repairing ducts and installing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

Over the time period examined in the audit, which runs from Fiscal Year 2012-13 through July of Fiscal Year 2014-15, Austin Energy completed weatherization of about 720 homes and was in the process of completing an additional 260 homes.

Assistant City Auditor Niki Raggi and her team, who conducted the audit, pointed out that during that time, Austin Energy staff failed to provide weatherization services to 65 eligible homes but did provide those services to 12 ineligible homes. Also, staff did not spend all of the funding available in the program and does not have adequate measures to gauge program results.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair commented on the result-tracking issue. “If we have this program available to low-income residents, and we want to … either provide them with savings and/or … make sure that we’re conserving as much energy as possible, I want to make sure that we’re doing those things and that we’re using that money as efficiently as possible,” she said.

In their report, Raggi and her team made several recommendations for ways to improve the program and noted that Austin Energy management concurred with all of them.

The top three recommendations are for Austin Energy to “ensure adequate monitoring and oversight” of the eligibility process and optimize spending so that eligible customers are served while ineligible ones are not, review its operations to ensure that it spends its allocated funding and re-evaluate the coordination between the two teams – Energy Efficiency Services and Customer Care – that administer the program.

The remaining recommendations are for Austin Energy to clarify the goals of the program with stakeholders, track those goals by setting and testing performance measures, ensure that accountabilities are clearly stated in contracts and carried out by contractors, consolidate all related data into one database and market the program to increase awareness of its services.

Consumer advocate Paul Robbins raised additional concerns about the cost of the program in an interview with the Austin Monitor. “The real problem is not what they looked at in the audit, it’s what they didn’t look at in the audit. They didn’t look at the higher costs,” he said.

“The free weatherization program is costing somewhere between 65 percent and 150 percent more than the inflation-adjusted benchmarks that we can compare it to historically,” Robbins continued. “There’s no excuse for costs being that high, and the audit did not figure out why the costs are so much higher than they should be.”

Debbie Kimberly, Austin Energy’s vice president of customer energy solutions, said, “We’re looking and continuing to look at ways to reduce the costs associated with the program.”

Kimberly and Denise Keen Kuehn, director of energy efficiency services for Austin Energy, also explained what caused some of the shortfalls identified in the report and how the utility is working to improve the program and incorporate audit recommendations.

Keen Kuehn said that the 65 customers who were denied weatherization services when Austin Energy was in the process of transitioning its eligibility policies have been put into a queue to receive those services as part of an upcoming contract.

The two teams that carry out the program, Kimberly said, are now meeting on a weekly basis in order to better coordinate services.

Kimberly also responded to the auditing team’s concerns that Austin Energy did not spend enough of its allocated funds and did not provide weatherization services for its customers. In the first fiscal year of the audit program, she said, one of the companies that applied for a weatherization contract challenged the decision the city ultimately made in selecting another contractor.

“It resulted in a delay in our ability to finalize the contract and launch that weatherization program until the last three months of the fiscal year,” she said. “That is where we frankly fell behind, and staff has endeavored to catch up.”

She added that in the past year, Austin Energy has weatherized over 500 homes.

Kimberly also said that Austin Energy is looking at rolling over unspent money to future years. Funding for the program comes from two sources: the Customer Assistance Program and the Energy Efficiency Services portion of the Community Benefit Charge that customers pay every month. The former funds already roll over every year if not spent, but the latter do not.

In the report, the auditing team estimates that the unspent money coming from the latter fund “could have been used to weatherize approximately 200 additional low-income customer homes.”

Two former members of the Low-Income Consumer Advisory Task Force – Carol Biedrzycki and Tim Arndt – also commented on the program.

Arndt said that he would like the city to follow a task force recommendation that Austin Energy be required to spend funds allocated to the program only on weatherization for low-income customers in order to ensure that the utility does not spend those funds on similar services for customers in higher income brackets.

Biedrzycki commented in favor of the audit, but she said that the city should follow another task force recommendation that involves conducting a study of the program costs in order to try to bring them down.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said that her office has requested that the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee consider the task force’s recommendations at its next meeting.

The committee ultimately voted unanimously to adopt the auditor’s report.

This story has been corrected to fix a misspelling.

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