February 9, 2010
City of Austin Takes Extra Steps to Assist Low Income Utility Customers
Austin utility customers receiving benefits through the state Medicaid program or Travis County Energy Assistance Program are now being automatically enrolled in the City of Austin utility discount program.
The City program – one of the most generous in the nation, provides utility bill discounts of about $45 per month for an average customer. As a result of the automatic signups by the City, the number of low income customers receiving utility bill discounts has been increased 82% from 4,501 customers in 2008 to 8,164 in 2009. The discounts saved participants $3.1 million in 2009 - an average of about $400 per participant.
Customers qualify for City of Austin utility bill discounts if someone in their household receives benefits from one of the following assistance programs: certain types of state Medicaid, state-paid Medicare, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Travis County Hospital District Medical Assistance Program (MAP) or Travis County Energy Assistance Program (CEAP).
City of Austin utility bill discounts include waivers of the electric, water, and wastewater monthly customer service charges, and a 50 percent discount on the Drainage Fee. The largest discount is provided by Austin Energy through a reduced fuel charge that accounts for the majority of the $400 discount average for participants in 2009. The Transportation User Fee is waived for any City of Austin utility account holder who does not own or drive a vehicle or who is 65 or older.
The City of Austin also in 2009 doubled from about $150,000 to $300,000 the amount of money made available annually for emergency utility bill financial assistance. Utility customers also donate about $45,000 a year on average to this cause. This provided a pool of funding in 2009 that provided assistance to 1,863 families – the largest number of families assisted in the history of the emergency funding program.
The City in 2009 also provided additional leeway to customers who requested utility bill payment plans.
Generally utility customers are eligible to set up payment plans twice a year for three or four months in duration within a calendar year and may be eligible for a third plan for extraordinary reasons such as loss of job or medical emergencies. Record temperatures last summer including 68 days of triple-digit temperatures left a number of customers with much higher than normal summer utility bills. The City of Austin offered a six-month payment arrangement to allow customers to catch up on large summer bills through six equal installments. The plan could be renegotiated once to a four-month payment plan. Almost 13,000 customers took advantage of the six-month payment plan option, which was available through October 1, 2009.
"We are committed to providing financial assistance to customers that makes a true difference, along with additional tools that help them keep their utility services in good standing,” said Kerry Overton, Austin Energy Deputy General Manager. “It is this combination of corporate compassion and individual effort that has enabled us to consistently deliver the best results for the customer and for the community."
City of Austin utility billing is handled by Austin Energy. The utility hopes to expand its automatic utility bill discount signup capability to include the Travis County Hospital District Medical Assistance Program (MAP). Over the next year, the utility bill discount program will be reviewed to determine if the program requirements make it available to all needy customers and to assess long-term budget capability for the program.