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Council denies request for mobile energy community center

Monday, July 1, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

City Council rejected a costly Austin Energy mobile outreach program in June that would have acted as a “community center” on wheels for customers to learn about energy programs offered by the utility.

Austin Energy currently uses two sport utility vehicles for mobile outreach and support, but this contract would feature a 27-foot modular trailer that customers could walk around in while receiving assistance or learning about energy programs.

Austin Energy spokesperson Debbie Kimberly said the idea was primarily to “remove friction” between customers and the variety of available programs like discounts for low-income residents and assistance with weatherization upgrades.

Kimberly cited lack of internet access and mobility constraints as examples of that friction, both of which she said the trailer would help to overcome. The trailer would visit customers at senior centers, mobile home communities and city events offering information about energy efficiency programs and even giving those with limited internet access a chance to pay energy bills.

In addition to routine events, she said the trailer could also be used as a place to let people charge their phones or find bottled water and other supplies in the wake of natural disasters.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, however, noted that most of those same objectives could be accomplished at the outreach booths the utility sets up at events.

Besides offering a “branded look” and an air-conditioned space, Kimberly countered that the trailer is also needed to relieve the burden of setting up and tearing down the tents for each event.

“We’ve had injuries when we’ve set up for outdoor events,” she said. “Sprains and strains do occur when you are lifting and carrying all of that material and event-support paraphernalia to and from the booth, so this is intended to be a much more efficient way of doing that.”

Despite those concerns, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan could not get on board.

“I don’t think that this is a good place to be spending a pretty significant amount of utility dollars given that we already do pop-up events all over the city,” Flannigan said. “This just creates a whole additional infrastructure that I just don’t think is valuable.”

Flannigan also echoed the objections of Electric Utility Commissioner Jim Boyle, who pulled the item to vote against it in May on the grounds that such a trailer has so far proven unnecessary in providing sufficient disaster relief during major fire and flood events.

The trailer and its associated expenses would cost the city $589,500 for the first two years of the contract, with an annual cost of $148,500 in subsequent years. According to Kimberly, the utility expected to operate the trailer about 15 times a year, which Tovo said would amount to a relatively high cost for each event.

“The contract with 15 events a year is going to pretty much just cover community events,” she said. “So then I think really the question before us is whether that delivery method is so much better than the delivery method we’re currently engaged in, which is a booth-based one, to justify the cost.”

In Mayor Steve Adler’s view, the annual cost was low enough not to need further justification beyond the utility’s request.

“It’s a $200,000 expenditure in a $3.5 billion budget and I just don’t think that this is the level we should be reaching to as the Council,” he said.

The majority of Council members, however, did not see it that way.

Tovo motioned to reject the contract request with the additional direction that staff would return with targeted outreach strategies to meet the goals of increasing enrollment in energy savings programs among communities that could most benefit.

Tovo’s motion passed 9-1 with Adler opposed and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza abstaining.

This story has been changed since publication to correct the annual cost of the proposed trailer.

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