Some high-dollar homes still benefiting from Austin Energy utility discount

FILE - Austin Energy Electric Meter box (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg)
FILE - Austin Energy Electric Meter box (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Austin Energy customers rack up those high energy costs this hot summer, they’re helping foot the bill for the city’s low-income utility discount. But KXAN discovered that the $16 million fund is also benefiting million-dollar homes.

“That money is going to subsidize people who may not necessarily need that help,” Council Member Ellen Troxclair told KXAN. “It’s still not fixed. And we need to get there as quickly as possible.”

It’s a problem KXAN first revealed back in 2014, after which, Austin Energy promised to fix the system meant for the people who need it most. KXAN asked what’s taking the utility so long to right this wrong.

For the past three years, KXAN has followed Paul Robbins’ work. In that time, the consumer advocate has spent countless hours trying to fix the Customer Assistance Program (CAP), what he calls a “broken program.”

“It’s kind of galling that this falls to one skinny guy to keep raising the alarm,” Robbins said.

The problems began after the city switched to a system that automatically enrolls people for the discount if they are enrolled in one of these social programs:

  • Medicaid Program
  • SNAP
  • CHIP
  • Telephone Lifeline Program
  • Travis Co. Comprehensive Energy Assistance Program
  • Medical Access Program (MAP)
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

The Customer Assistance Program (CAP) discount helps reduce bills an average $650 a year, but KXAN found many of those breaks are going to high-dollar homes.

“It irks me to no end that money meant for poor people is being given to people who are relatively wealthy,” Robbins said.

Here’s how it’s happening: if the person is enrolled in one of the social programs listed, and they happen to live in a wealthy home, it lowers the utility bill for that entire household.

“If you’ve got foster kids in your home and those foster kids come with state health insurance, you get the benefit. If you have grandparents in your home who get SSI or disability, you’re going to get that discount as well,” Robert Cullick, with Austin Energy said.

Utility bills are distributed through Austin Energy, but other utilities, like Austin Water, also factor into the CAP program.

KXAN tracked down homeowners in houses valued at $700,000-$1.8 million. No one wanted to talk on camera, but several said it’s unfair to judge their need based on the size of their homes. Everyone KXAN spoke with confirmed there was someone living in the home benefiting from one of the social programs.

“Over the past two years, we’ve really focused on the people who, because of the value of their property, may not need these programs,” Cullick explained.

Cullick believes the process is going at the proper speed. “Oh, I don’t think it’s taking so long at all. That’s the proper way to do it. To jump in there and start a new program or new qualifying systems or probe deeply into people’s finances and income, that’s not something we would do until we’ve exhausted all other possibilities.”

Cullick said the city has been able to eliminate 75 percent of the high-dollar homes. For now, Austin Energy has temporarily suspended certain customers’ accounts if they earn more than twice the federal poverty rate.

“If you’re looking at a family of four, it’s probably in the $46,000,” Cullick said, confirming that anything above wouldn’t qualify for the program. “We understand that nobody wants money going to folks who don’t need it, especially when there are folks who still do need that.”

In the past two years, Austin Energy sent out two rounds of letters—in October 2015 and August 2016—to help identify those who don’t need the utility discount. In the most recent letter, they asked 420 customers for proof of income. Most never responded, so their discounts were suspended. The city is still working to verify if around 100 homes in questions should actually be enrolled in the program.

Austin Energy plans to get with city council within the next two months about fully removing customers from the discount list who do not qualify.

To learn if you’re eligible for the discount, you can call 855-319-6630 or mail this form to the city’s Customer Care Contact Center.

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