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Sparks Fly at Council Discussion of Austin Energy Rates

Adopting a timeline for discussion of Austin Energy rate increase turned into a debate over the merits of a separate, interim increase.
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Adopting a timeline for discussion of Austin Energy rate increase turned into a debate over the merits of a separate, interim increase.

At a special-called meeting this morning, the Austin City Council called for the City Auditor to review Austin Energy’s revenue requirements, one of the drivers of the utility’s controversial rate increase proposals.

But that may have been the meeting’s least contentious aspect.

Item 2 on the on council’s sparse agenda would set a timeline for further discussion on Austin Energy’s rate proposals. But the seemingly innocuous item – “Discussion and approval of a work session schedule to consider Austin Energy rates” – set off a debate on the dais that lead to a lengthy discussion.

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole proposed a timeline of her own, which she discussed in an Austin American-Statesman editorial.

“Today, in a City Council work session, I'll propose a reasonable, prudent and aggressive schedule through mid-May that seeks to methodically review the myriad of questions surrounding Austin Energy's financial needs,” Cole wrote.

However, an alternate motion supported by council members Mike Martinez, Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo was also offered. It laid out a longer timeline than Cole’s proposal, calling for a final policy decision by September. But the longer timeline implicitly endorsed the interim 3.5 percent across-the-board rate increase proposed by Morrison and Tovo, and championed by Martinez.

With a vote on the interim increase not scheduled until council’s meeting next week, questions as to the timing of both proposals consumed the dais. “The substitute motion absolutely requires we take some interim action,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “We have not settled on that … whereas the primary motions gives us the flexibility to potentially do an immediate rate increase followed by a more studied rate increase after a longer process.” At one point, council broke to privately discuss implications of the proposals with legal counsel.

Ultimately the substitute motion passed, with several amendments, the most substantive being the removal of specific dates for discussion and action – meaning final approval could come before September.

Debate will certainly continue over the interim rate increase when it comes to council next Thursday, March 1.

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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