Local churches could face higher Austin Energy rates

Many churches are continuing to fight Austin Energy over potential rate increases. Their long-standing discount is now on the chopping block as the utility company considers adjusting how much it charges for electricity.

An impartial hearing examiner was brought in to weigh both sides. His report was presented at a meeting on Monday night.

The House of Worship discount has allowed churches to save money for several years. On Monday the examiner agreed with Austin Energy on discontinuing it. However, some church leaders say doing that would turn into an increase for the average taxpayer.

Richard Haplin says it never should have been called a discount, instead it should have been called a correction. The discussion on discontinuing it began five years ago.

"Austin Energy has called the weekend rate, that houses of worship use on Saturdays and Sundays, a demand rate. In fact, the demand rate that they compare the house of worship to is the weekday demand rate around 4:30 pm. That's when everybody in Austin turns their air conditioner on. The house of worship on the weekend doesn't use the same kind of demand," says Richard Haplin, First Unitarian Universalist Church.

An increase in rates could mean some churches would have to eliminate programs and services.

"That money is going to have to come from somewhere. Houses of worship are strapped for money too. They are going to have to take money from things they do to make Austin affordable for people; like lunch programs and other kinds of charitable work that these houses of worship do. The council is going to have to come up with twice, or three times, that kind of money to make up for those social services," says Haplin.

Austin Energy says most communities in Texas don't offer any type of discount or rate correction to houses of worship. They want every category of customer to pay the cost of their own electricity.

"We don't see any really significant difference between a house of worship and a commercial enterprise, so they should be paying their actual cost of providing service. Remember we are community-owned. If one class of customers doesn't pay, another class over pays," says Robert Cullick, Austin Energy Spokesman.

So what about residential customers? Austin Energy says they will continue to pay the same.

"Austin Energy's position is that residential customers in Austin are subsidized, while commercial customers pay too much. Our analysis didn't show that. We agree that there should be some rate reduction to commercial customers but we also strongly agree that residential customers should receive some rate decrease as well," says Janee Briesemeister, Independent Consumer Advocate Team.

The decision is ultimately up to city council. They'll look at the issue coming up in an August meeting. They will also take public comment.