Austin Energy's power rate cut proposal includes phasing out church discount

Austin Energy's revenue is currently exceeding how much it costs to provide power to the city. The cash surplus, more than $20-million dollars, is the result of an infrastructure building boom that’s coming to an end.

"We are making real progress on that, we are pretty much meeting our goals, so it’s time to crank that back,” said AE Director for Corporate Communications Robert Cullick.
The big winner in a proposed rate adjustment plan would be commercial businesses. According to the utility, historically, commercial customers pay more than residential users. But providing relief may mean the end is near for a discount given to places of worship.

"There's no gimmes here, we pay thousands, tens of thousands of dollars in utility bills, there is no gimme here,” said Richard Haplin.

Halpin and his wife, Beki, co-chair the Green Sanctuary Committee for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin.         

The Haplins say electric power rate discount given to churches is really a rate adjustment. Most congregations consume a lot of power when they meet on the weekends and not so much during the weekdays. But if bills are tied only to peak use local churches may start feeling the heat when the bills start coming in.  A recent review determined utility bills, for many churches, will spike; estimates range from 20% to 80%.

"We were totally flabbergasted when we found out the total would be a million dollars for all houses of worship in the city we were like, oh my goodness, and further more we found out most churches don’t even know about it,” said Beki Haplin.

First Unitarian is part of a growing coalition, which includes Bethany United Methodist and Anderson Mill Baptist church. Representatives from all three have sent formal protest letters claiming community support programs will be hurt.

"It’s a struggle for churches like ours that do a lot in the community, where are we going to take that money from? are we not going to be able to make sandwiches for the hungry, it’s just a mistake, a mistake in a well-intentioned effort by Austin Energy to bring in revenue but Austin Energy doesn’t need the revenue,” said Richard Haplin.

A consumer advocate brought in to look at the rate reduction plan warned there could be a rate hike shock; especially for smaller congregations. But it was also noted some churches may see no change and a few could actually get a smaller bill.
The rate reduction plan is being reviewed by a hearing examiner, hired by Austin Energy. Next week a ruling from the examiner is to be submitted to the city.

"What we are trying to accomplish is to have a fair and open process that results in the opportunity for the Austin City Council to look at rates, reduce rates, and recue the rates for the right folks,” said Cullick.

Utility managers suggest the new rate structure could help encourage congregations to be more energy efficient. The Haplins pointed out many are already doing that -- for example First Unitarian installed solar panels several years ago. Ironically - the church feeds electricity straight into the Austin Energy power grid.

A public hearing is set for July the 18th with the city utility commission. A final vote by the city council is expected by the end of August.