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Just before the storms, Austin Energy gave Covid relief update

Tuesday, February 23, 2021 by Ramon Rodriguez

Before winter storm Uri wrought devastation and widespread power outages, Austin Energy was focused on the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and its accompanying economic damage. In April of last year, City Council approved measures collectively providing $46 million in utility bill relief for qualifying Austin residents. The plan was to end the new program in September.

By December, outstanding bills had more than doubled to $43 million.

In other words, last March, 91 percent of Austin Energy customers were paying their utility bills on time. By December, that number had shrunk to 66 percent, and it had become clear that the pandemic would not be letting up – particularly on the residents the relief efforts were designed to protect.

With full standard collection operations set to resume this May, including service disconnections, Austin Energy Deputy General Manager and Chief Customer Officer Kerry Overton presented those relief efforts, and their futures, to the Electric Utility Commission. The virtual meeting took place before last week’s winter storm disaster had struck.

Some commissioners expressed concern for residents who might be unable to keep up with service resumption.

“I think this might still be a little bit longer, or maybe a lot longer, before we really get past the Covid scenario,” Commissioner Karen Hadden said.

Fittingly, Overton was briefly disconnected during Hadden’s statement. But his answer was simple: Community outreach needed to be improved, and this was one way of doing it.

It wasn’t as if communication efforts hadn’t been made – news releases, social media campaigns, a new website and thousands of direct calls, letters, flyers and emails had been launched in the past year.

Efforts were made to transcend language. In a sign of Austin’s changing demographics, advertisements went out not only in English and Spanish but in Chinese and Vietnamese.

Payment channels were expanded to include the likes of Walmart, Paypal and Venmo.

As utility debt greater than 90 days octupled to $18.8 million, payment arrangements were made to last up to 36 months.

But as the receivables doubled, payment arrangements were halved.

And so the late fees, which were resumed in November, are just another form of outreach, Overton said, and added that customers who contact Austin Energy now would be able to waive late fees either by going into a payment plan or by receiving relief funding. Disconnections are set to begin again in May.

During a year like no other, Overton said the most successful element of Austin Energy’s pandemic response was the existence of community partnerships with social service agencies, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and other governmental entities.

“As soon as we had the resources available, the funding and the mechanisms available for customers to apply, we had the infrastructure already in place for those that are already working with those customers who are the most in need,” Overton said, highlighting the need for strong community ties during the pandemic.

Photo by Mark Florence made available through a Creative Commons license.

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