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Austin Energy May Get Independent Oversight Board

With a lengthy time table, discussion of proposed energy rate increases will continue for months.
KUT News
With a lengthy time table, discussion of proposed energy rate increases will continue for months.

A week from today the Austin City Council will consider whether to relinquish most of its governing power over Austin Energy and create an independent board to oversee the utility.

In anticipation of the council’s actions, State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, filed legislation Wednesday that would allow Austin council members to create the board without a public referendum. Such a change could mean changes for customers.

Shudde Fath, 97, is an Austin Energy customer. She says that for her, switching Austin Energy to an independent governing board is a no-brainer.

She doesn’t say that just as an everyday customer. For 36 years, Fath has been a member of the Electric Utility Commission, a group appointed by Austin City Council members to advise on utility policies. Throughout that time, she’s championed three proposals asking that Austin Energy get an independent board.

“The council all through the years have used Austin Energy as kind of the cash cow,” Fath said. “They take about $100 million general fund transfer, and then they take about another $50 million for odds and ends things, some of which an investor-owned utility would do, civic things. And because they take too much money, your rates are going to have to pay for it in the long run.”

Sen. Watson says that in the long run, rate increases should be just one concern for Austin Energy customers. He says it’s alarming that a city of Austin’s size and caliber has council members, essentially a group of amateurs, governing a utility company.

“This is a billion-dollar-plus business enterprise, and billion-dollar-plus business enterprises typically are governed by boards that have some specific expertise in that area and are not subject to lobbying and political winds,” Watson said.

A change in the utility company’s governing body could open it up for better and more varied service options. The first step comes on February 14th, when the city council is expected to take the first step toward creating the board.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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