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Reporter’s Notebook: Trees and tribulations

Monday, May 20, 2019 by Austin Monitor

Water woes… Out of the 33 water utilities in the South that deliver water to at least 400,000 customers, a new study by J.D. Power reports that Austin ranks 28th in terms of customer satisfaction with 707 points. San Antonio, an oft-referenced benchmark within Austin’s water utility, ranks 15th with a 735 point score. Scores are based on a 1,000 point scale. According to the study’s findings, proactive communications have the most powerful effect on overall satisfaction, but only 28 percent of water utility customers recall receiving any communications from their utility. One of the biggest detractors the survey found was water quality and service interruptions, both of which Austin Water has recently endured. With zebra mussels infusing South Austin water with a sulfuric odor, tap water being on boil order for a period last October and high bills being sent out due to misread meters, it stands to reason that there would be a sense of dissatisfaction from some Austin-area customers. However, the water utility has acknowledged these issues and is taking steps to rectify its relationship with customers. Some of its solutions include retraining call center staff and looking into different chemical processes for treating overly murky water. According to the study, these measures should pay off, eventually. The survey showed that “Customer awareness initiatives focused on infrastructure investments can significantly offset declines in customer satisfaction.” And “overall satisfaction scores are 84 points higher when customers recall receiving a proactive communication from their utility.”

Austin Energy greases its chain saws… Some residents may have noticed Austin Energy trucks making their way through the neighborhoods lately as the utility takes a more aggressive stance on tree trimming. That’s because recent storms and climate pressures have pressured the utility to get serious about preventing outages and safety hazards. Citing PG&E’s recent role in the California wildfire catastrophe, Charles Dickerson, chief operating officer at Austin Energy, told the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee last week that the city needs a robust vegetation management policy that will require trimming trees more prudently. This involves reverting back to the vegetation clearance policies from prior to 2006 and amending them slightly to allow for clearance of fast-growing species within 11 to 15 feet and of slow-growing species within 7 to 10 feet of electricity infrastructure. “I know that it triggers and elicits different emotions for different people,” Dickerson said, “but at the end of the day if we do not trim the trees, we could find ourselves in a very precarious situation.” The utility maintains that these standards are consistent with the city’s tree preservation ordinances. For those concerned about the damage done to the city’s trees, Dickerson says not to worry: “We have arborists on-site who are trained; they have degrees in what’s the best way to trim the trees.”

More money for music?… Advocates for Austin musicians appear to be readying a plan they hope could result in a significant shift in how the city allocates money it receives from the Hotel Occupancy Tax, specifically toward commercial live music venues. At Monday’s meeting of the Tourism Commission, Rebecca Reynolds, attorney and president of Austin’s Music Venue Alliance, said the city’s requirement that recipients of HOT funds for creative arts be nonprofit entities locks music venues out of a potentially large source of revenue at a time when rents and development pressures are putting more of them at financial risk. While state law places many restrictions on how HOT funds can be used, the nonprofit requirement is only a city-level requirement that Reynolds said needs to be reexamined. “We believe the current system of allocation may frustrate the purpose of the chapter 351 statute,” she said. “We understand cities are allowed to add requirements for recipients of HOT funds, but in Austin’s case the additional requirement that the business needs to be a tax-free entity, rather than a taxed entity, has disqualified the target of chapter 351, which in our case is commercial music.” Reynolds said she and other music advocates are seeking time with city leaders to discuss creating a “meaningful allocation” of HOT funds for commercial music. When asked about her organization’s position on the proposed expansion of the Austin Convention Center – a move that would trigger a 2 percent HOT increase and possibly more funding for arts and tourism efforts – Reynolds said MVA is generally in support of the expansion, adding, “We need guarantees there will be available funds and it will be for music. Let’s talk about the nonprofit requirement and what that means.” The attempt to rework requirements for HOT funding allocation comes as the window is closing on a bill MVA and other music supporters around the state attempted to pass that would provide some refunds of liquor tax revenues to qualifying live music venues. The Texas House passed its version of the bill in April but it is still in the Senate’s Business & Commerce Committee. The Legislature closes May 27.

Doggie discount delivers… Noisy storms often frighten and disorient animals, which leads to a big increase in lost pets and therefore a major influx of canine and feline guests at the Austin Animal Center. On Saturday, May 11, following another round of powerful storms, the AAC announced that it was at capacity and desperate for people to adopt pets. To spur adoptions, it lowered its adoption fee from $75 to $12 for the weekend. The center later extended the discount through Tuesday. The ploy appeared to work, AAC spokeswoman Jennifer Olohan told the Monitor: “We are in much better shape this week after our desperate plea last weekend! However, we still have some dogs who do not have regular kennels – but that number is down to only 13 from 66 last Saturday.” The moral of this story is, if thunderstorms are in the forecast, make sure your furry family members are safe and secure indoors.

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Jessi Devenyns, Ryan Thornton, Chad Swiatecki and Jack Craver. 

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