Author Archives: Bill Oakey

About Bill Oakey

I am retired from the State of Texas as an accountant. I am now an artist in Austin, doing photographic art. I'm also a lifelong music fan and a computer geek.

Opposing Forces Up The Ante On Climate Change / Electric Utility Dilemma

By Bill Oakey, August 3, 2022

I have written about the big conundrum facing Austin Energy and other utilities. As their own employees help homeowners and businesses become more energy efficient, the utilities find themselves wanting to raise rates, because they’re not selling enough electricity. Austin Energy has forecast the potential need for more than one rate increase. And as I’m writing this, a dear friend is preparing for contractors to install solar panels on her roof. A 10 kilowatt battery to store excess energy comes with her package.

It’s easy to see how rate increases to shore up lost utility revenues will backfire. The contractor that is helping my friend will boost their advertising, as will the others in that business. Utilities will find that chasing revenue deficits with successive rate increases could send them into a death spiral. Climate change is the trigger here. It drives summer electric bills to historic high levels. That pushes businesses and residents to go solar, and employ every other efficiency measure they can find.

This daunting dilemma looks to get worse, because of a series of circumstances that have yet to be widely recognized. That’s why I’m making a push to alert the news media and the Austin City Council, as well as Congressman Lloyd Doggett.

Big Changes May Come to the Texas Power Grid

I was jolted awake this morning by a shocking article in the Texas Tribune. Come to find out, there is plenty of West Texas wind energy available. But ERCOT, the Texas grid management agency, has ordered a lot of the wind turbines to be shut down this summer. Why? Because there aren’t enough transmission lines to deliver the cheap wind power to big cities like Dallas, Houston and Austin. The Texas Public Utility Commission is working on a solution (we hope)! Two recent grid assessment reports cited in the Tribune article highlight the many shortcomings in the grid system. Three entities will collide over what response follows those reports – public interest groups, special interest groups and politicians. The problems can be fixed, if the solutions aren’t nixed. The future of your bill rests on political will.

There is reason for hope. From the Tribune article comes two profound statements. “This month, the PUblic Utility Commission formed a task force to develop a pilot program next year that would create a pathway for solar panels and batteries on small-scale systems, like homes and businesses, to add that energy to the grid. The program would make solar and batteries more accessible and affordable for customers, and it would pay customers to share their stored energy to the grid as well.”

And this comment from John Hensley, with the American Clean Power Association. “Storage is the real game-changer because it can really help to mediate and control a lot of the intermittency issues that a lot of folks worry about when they think about wind and solar technology. So being able to capture a lot of that solar that comes right around noon to [1 p.m.] and move it to those evening periods when demand is at its highest, or even move strong wind resources from overnight to the early morning or afternoon hours.”

How Can the Utilities Stay In Business, As Efficiency Drains Revenues?

That’s the big challenge that demands to be addressed. I submit that, above all, it should be discussed and resolved out in the open. Our local leaders, our Congressmen and women, and the public should all be granted a seat at the table. If we stay in the background and hope for the best, nothing good may come of it. With or without Congressional passage of the current climate bill, future legislation will probably happen. Utilities may need to completely rethink their business models. Austin would be an ideal place to host a major conference on resolving the dilemma.

One thing is certain. All utilities will be generating and selling a lot less energy in the years to come. That’s a good thing for progress on climate change. But utilities must not be allowed to charge unreasonable rates, and cut back credits for end users who generate and store their own energy. For now, Austinites are staring down a terribly flawed rate increase proposal. That calls for a poem:

The folks at Austin Energy are way out of touch
They simply don’t care about us very much
In a fancy new building that cost $150 million
They wrestle with a budget of a couple gazillion

Amongst them is a band of renegade abusers
Who want to raise rates for the smallest users
While the Austin economy sees poverty expansion
They would lower the rates for a big, sprawling mansion

Pardon me if I be so bold
But their rate increase should be put on hold
From the month of May to the end of September
They’ll make more money than anyone can remember

The City needs time to assess the situation
And we’re in a recession with high inflation
My idea might be met with a blanket rejection
But there’s an upcoming City Council election

We need transparency, reason and fairness
And a whole lot more public awareness
This is a time for all hands on deck
We and our neighbors should protest like heck!

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “Blowing in the Wind” – Peter, Paul & Mary
  2. “Wind Beneath My Wings” – Bette Midler
  3. “Candle in the Wind” – Elton John
  4. “Catch the Wind” – Donovan
  5. “Summer Wind” – Frank Sinatra

The Big Electric Utility And Climate Change Dilemma – And How To Solve It

By Bill Oakey, August 1, 2022

Electric Utilities Can’t Make a Profit

It’s simple economics. If homes and businesses get too energy efficient, the utilities can’t sell enough electricity. And yet, most offer home weatherization programs, and credits for rooftop solar panels. These utilities have whole divisions that do nothing but promote energy conservation, and they directly help customers achieve energy efficiency.

But now, many utilities find themselves facing a potential death spiral. Here in Austin, rapid growth requires expanding the utility services. City regulations do not require enough developer fees to cover all the costs associated with adding new customers. In addition, homes and businesses have become more energy efficient. As a result, Austin Energy has been losing money. They are not selling enough electricity throughout the year. Their solution is a hefty base rate increase. Austin Energy’s revenue bonds were downgraded to AA- in June. They told the Fitch bond rating service that additional rate increases, beyond this one, may be necessary.

The Utility Death Spiral Is Easily Explained

Austin Energy faces a daunting dilemma that they share with other utilities across the country. Rate increases as an ongoing business strategy will almost certainly backfire. They will push builders, homeowners and businesses to implement energy efficiency solutions at an accelerating pace. Businesses that sell solar panels have already stepped up their advertising. It’s easy to see that a whole series of rate increases, each followed by similar market responses, would drive the utility into a death spiral.

Within the next ten years, Austin residents and businesses will have a significantly lower demand for purchased power than they have today. We will always need electric utilities. As connected customers, we are assured of reliable service, assuming that the power grid holds up. But, future declines in electricity sales are inevitable. So, it is imperative for Austin Energy to find a new direction, and change their business model. Their very survival depends on it. If they don’t get it right, the City will face an additional, ominous revenue shortfall. Austin Energy’s transfer to the General Fund will have to be reduced.

If Utilities Try to Wage a Battle Against Technology, They Will Lose. And the Country’s Climate Change Efforts Will Suffer

I recently wrote a blog piece about an incredibly exciting climate change opportunity. CNN did a major study on the potential benefits of large-scale rooftop solar installations at big-box retail stores. Read that piece to get all the details.

But, the big dilemma comes back to bite us again. What if every Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes, big warehouse and distribution center across the country put solar panels on their rooftops? What if Austin put one on their massively expanding convention center? Austin Energy and the other utilities would sell a lot less electricity. And yet, we’d be addressing climate change. Severe drought, intense hurricanes, wildfires, epic flooding and West Coast water shortages might finally begin to subside. Further mitigation will become possible, once battery storage technology gets more efficient and affordable.

Some Utilities Are Pushing Back Against Solar Panel Credits

The seriousness of the utility profit / climate change dilemma is laid out in a disturbing article from NBC News, published in May. Utilities in some states are reducing their solar energy buyback rates. Austin Energy’s solar buyback program could be weakened, as part of their new rate proposal. The Sierra Club and Public Citizen are intervening in the case, to protect solar-use customers. In Mississippi and other places, utilities are telling their State regulators that maximum buyback benefits are no longer economically viable for them. The most stunning example is California, where drought and wildfires are prevalent. A battle over huge reductions in solar buyback rates has been raging there since January. Governor Gavin Newsom should step in and defend solar credits.

Utilities Need to Embrace Declining Electricity Sales

The pushback by utilities against technologies that help their customers is a major threat to national climate change efforts. The outdated utility business models are as dangerous to the environment and the planet as fossil fuels and carbon emissions. To put it quite simply, gradually selling less electricity over time must become one of the utilities’ primary goals. How to make that happen, while keeping the utilities in stable financial condition is the challenge.

Maybe the U.S. Congress Can Help

Congress is poised to pass a historic climate change bill this week. Funding will be available for energy efficiency programs and infrastructure improvements on a large scale. I have requested an appointment with Congressman Lloyd Doggett, during the August recess. One of the topics I would like to discuss is the daunting dilemma that is described here. Maybe Congress could    facilitate a series of discussions among climate scientists, utility company executives, State regulators and business strategy experts. They could task them with studying the dilemma and finding ways to resolve it. Our utilities need to counteract the death spiral, before it’s too late.

A First Step Toward the Solution

We only need to look at the frightening condition of the Colorado River to “get it” about climate change. A recent Washington Post report highlights the West Coast lakes that are drying up. The Austin City Council should stop Austin Energy’s rate increase proposal dead in in its tracks. And they should insist on maximum solar panel credits. The revenue windfall from the historic summer heatwave will buy some valuable time. With innovative planning and a fresh new approach, our city could shine a light on the rest of the nation. We should turn the daunting dilemma into an exciting opportunity for positive change.

A note about the author of this blog: I am a longtime affordability activist, with nearly 40 years of experience observing and participating in electronic utility rate cases.

Austin Energy’s Rate Increase Tied To Not Selling Enough Electricity

By Bill Oakey – July 28, 2022

That headline should jolt anyone out of bed, if they are not awake already. Yes, you read it right! This is a deja vu from a few years ago. We were urged to conserve water. Then Austin Water told us they were raising its rates, because they weren’t selling enough water.

The shocking news from Austin Energy seems outrageous on its face. But the philosophy behind it is chilling and disturbing. Here’s the explanation from Austin Energy’s vice president of finance: “Customers have become more efficient in their energy usage, but the current rate design is not as efficient as the customers, causing the revenue to be unable to keep up with costs. This means the old rate structure was built in a way that assumed the top energy users would to an extent subsidize the lower energy users. However, over the last 20 years, customers have become more efficient in using energy. This has eliminated a large portion of the higher-end energy users, causing Austin Energy to lose revenue.” 

Wow! Let’s think about that statement. He is literally suggesting that wealthy people who have moved into Austin neighborhoods, into big fancy homes, have made those homes more energy efficient. Therefore, the outdated rate design does not allow these folks to pay more and “subsidize” the low and middle-income folks who pay less for electricity.

Austin Energy’s shameless solution is to stick the smaller users with the highest portion of the rate increase. It would guarantee that by raising the fixed monthly customer charge by $15.00. On top of that, they want to decrease the number of rate tiers, and flatten their impact. This will lower the costs for the biggest users.

Here’s Why That Philosophy Falls Apart

1. It would exacerbate the income inequality that underlies Austin’s affordability crisis.

2. Instead of solving Austin Energy’s revenue problem, it would make it worse. Residents and small business owners at all income levels would make energy efficiency a high priority. They would use this link and this link on Austin Energy’s own website!  Yes, Austin Energy is offering us rebates and incentives to conserve. Then, with the other hand, they want higher base rates every month because they’re not selling enough electricity!

3. And get this, folks…The future outlook is even worse. On June 28, the Fitch bond rating service downgraded Austin Energy’s revenue bonds to AA-. Here is a statement from the first page of their report. “The planned rate increase is projected to contribute an additional $48 million in base rate revenues. AE expects additional base rate increases will be necessary to improve the utility’s operating cash flows and leverage profile on a sustained basis.”

Yup, that’s Austin Energy’s brilliant management plan. Watch the customer base shrink, as more homes and businesses install solar panels, energy storage batteries, etc. Have they not been adjusting their operational plans to coincide with the evolving market? It looks like they’re desperately trying to keep the ship afloat, by piling rate increases onto the masses of people who can’t afford to join the solar club.

I Have a Much Better Solution

1. Use the list of single-click links in my previous blog posting to email every City Council member and the Mayor. Ask them to cancel the proposed rate increase. The record daily highs and record high overnight lows this summer are producing historically high electric bills. This will easily shore up Austin Energy’s revenues.

2. The City Council owes it to the citizens to hold a series of public engagement sessions to evaluate the best path forward for Austin Energy. As for the ongoing formal rate hearing process – Nip it, Snip it, STRIP it! A new City Council will be sworn in next January. Why suffer through the agony of the other kind of swearing, that would accompany a raucous and contentious electric rate battle this fall? Citizens and small businesses are already being crushed by high summer bills.

3. Ausin Energy is the most important asset that our city owns. It provides us with electricity. But it is also a vital revenue source for the City’s general fund. Their financial dilemma needs to be carefully evaluated by our new Mayor and City Council. And most importantly, you and I and our friends and neighbors deserve a seat at the table!

Call To Action – Let’s STRIP Austin’s Electric Rate Increase Proposal!

By Bill Oakey – July 25, 2022

On Friday July 22nd, KXAN-TV News aired a story about our oppressively high summer electric bills. The historic triple-digit heat has led to these burdensome bills, that are straining family budgets at a time of record high inflation. But, as I pointed out in the news segment, Austin Energy has a nasty surprise for us, lurking around the corner. They want to pile on a new base rate increase!

In the news interview, I explained that Austin Energy will be sweeping up the highest peak season profits in their history, from May through September. This will pour tens of millions of extra dollars into their coffers, well above their current year’s budget. The City Council will have every reason to nip the rate increase in the bud, as well they should.

But my jaw dropped to the floor, as I listened to Austin Energy’s response to that suggestion on KXAN. Here are their misleading and faulty arguments:

1. We don’t make any profits. The extra revenue is returned to the City.

2. We will earn extra revenue, but we also have additional expenses, with “the high cost of energy.”

The full costs of fuel and ERCOT power purchases are passed through to us, the customers. That charge appears on the Power Supply Adjustment line on our electric bills. The summer demand surge will undoubtedly push the charge higher. The fixed monthly amount is modified each year in November.

It’s true that Austin Energy’s revenue transfers to the general fund are not the same as a private business profit. But, here we’re talking about a revenue surplus – a windfall. In a recession or a time of high inflation, the revenue surplus can be used to keep customer rates stable. (Hint for the City Council)!

Imagine this historic seasonal windfall, with a new base rate increase stacked on top of it! That would generate even more tens of millions of extra revenue – every year. There are suspicions that the City wants to dodge the Legislative property tax cap with higher general fund transfers.

Here’s The Rub – Get Ready for a Snub!

The rate increase proposal would shift some base rate costs away from big businesses, onto residential ratepayers. And it would upend the residential rate tiers, pushing higher costs onto low and middle-income folks. We simply can’t let that happen! It’s a slap in the face in a city with extreme income inequality and an affordability crisis, plus high inflation.

It’s Time For a Call to Action!

S-T-R-I-P: Stop The Rate Increase Proposal

Nip It, Skip It, STRIP It!

My plan is to meet with neighborhood groups and civic organizations across the City, to explain what’s going on here. This is my fifth decade of affordability activism. I served on the City Electric Utility Commission from 1985-1990. This time around, we may have a victory in the palm of our hands. There are four City Council seats and the Mayor’s race on the ballot in November. Even if the current City Council adopts the lopsidedly unfair rate proposal, the new Council could scale it back or STRIP it completely. It’s up to you and me and our friends and neighbors, to elect a consumer-friendly Mayor and City Council. We can do it! Any future rate increase must not penalize small users, and it must protect residential and small business ratepayers!

Here’s What You Can Do to Help

1. Contact every City Council member and the Mayor. Ask them to STRIP (Ooooh!…They can do some of it behind closed doors, subject to the open meetings law limitations).

2. Ask the City Council to put senior discounts on the fixed customer charges for every category on our utility bills. It’s high time for the City to help our longtime residents.

3. Alert your friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. Send them the link to this blog piece.

4. Subscribe to this blog to stay up to date on our path to victory. A convenient STRIP Guide will soon be made available. It will tell it like it is in plain, simple language. The veil of special interest subterfuge will be peeled away and clearly exposed. We will wrestle our publicity-owned utility away from the special interests, and give it back to the people!

Use These One-Click Links to Send Emails to the City Council:

Mayor Steve Adler steve.adler@austintexas.gov
1. District 1 – Natasha Harper-Madison natasha.madison@austintexas.gov
2. District 2 – Vanessa Fuentes vanessa.fuentes@austintexas.gov
3. District 3 – Sabino “Pio” Renteria sabino.renteria@austintexas.gov
4, District 4 – Jose “Chio” Vela jose.vela@austintexas.gov
5. District 5 – Ann Kitchen ann.kitchen@austintexas.gov
6. District 6 – Mackenzie Kelly mackenzie.kelly@austintexas.gov
7. District 7 – Leslie Pool leslie.pool@austintexas.gov
8. District 8 – Paige Ellis paige.ellis@austintexas.gov
9. District 9 – Kathie Tovo kathie.tovo@austintexas.gov
10. District 10 – Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter alison.alter@austintexas.gov

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:

1. “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” – Harry Connick Jr., from “When Harry Met Sally”
2. “The Stripper” – David Rose, 1962 #1 song
3. “Behind Closed Doors” – Charlie Rich
4. “The Streak” – Ray Stevens
5. “Heat Wave” – Martha & the Vandellas
6. “Windfall” – Rick Nelson
7. “77 Sunset Strip” – Don Ralke
8. “Tell It Like It Is” – Aaron Neville
9. “The High Cost Of Living” – Wood’s Tea Company
10. “When The Lights Go On Again” – Mary Duff

Two More Electric Bill Shocks Are Coming!

By Bill Oakey, July 21, 2022

If you have seen your latest electric bill, you know that the historic heatwave has pushed it way up. That’s bad enough – with rents skyrocketing, along with gasoline, grocery bills and property taxes. But strap yourself in…The second and third episodes of this ugly electric bill drama are right around the corner. At least we may have a chance to slow down or significantly curtail Episode 3. But that will require a call to action, with a united citizen backlash. (I’ll be on the front lines for that!)

Episode 2 – The Power Supply Adjustment Charge

The sky high bills that we are seeing this summer are simply based on our usage – the number of kilowatt hours that we consumed in order to beat back the heat. Most of us were propelled into the third tier of the base rate structure. Anything above 1,000 kilowatt hours is billed at a higher rate. It doesn’t take much to jingle the cash register to $25, $50 or $100 above the normal charges that we are used to seeing.

So, you might wonder, how could it get any worse? Well, there’s the little matter of power generation costs – Austin Energy’s fuel costs, plus their energy sales and purchases through the ERCOT power grid. Those net costs are passed through to the customers, but there’s a hitch. The Power Supply Adjustment is a fixed monthly charge. Austin Energy and the City Council only recalculate it once a year. So, this summer it’s relatively small. That’s because we had a mild summer last year, before the latest calculation was made. The adjustment charge will be reviewed next month, as part of the City’s annual budget discussions.

That’s when the next shockwaves will probably come to light. Many Texas utilities adjust their fuel charges and ERCOT net costs on a monthly basis. Statewide news reports are filled with grim accounts of skyrocketing electric bills. They cite the huge spike in national gas costs for power plants. That’s because of the war in Ukraine and the worldwide heatwave. Texas is one of the highest U.S. gas producers. We are exporting lots of it to Europe.

That’s where supply and demand kicks in. It falls to ERCOT to regulate the daily sales and purchases of electricity across the state. Because of the Big Special Interests who created this system, and lobbied the Legislature to keep it, we’re screwed! During peak demand periods, the price per megawatt hour for ERCOT transactions can skyrocket. The normal rate of $40 to $50 per megawatt hour can legally spike up to $5,000 per megawatt hour. It shouldn’t hit that cap unless the grid goes into a weather emergency, like it did during the 2021 winter storm. But it has already swung to well over $1,000 per megawatt hour at times, during this heatwave.

For now, we are at arm’s length from Episode 2 of electric bill shock. I have asked the City Council to give us some sort of estimate of how bad it might be. Austin Energy actually made a $100 million profit during the winter storm. They produced more electricity than they were allowed to use. So, they sold it through the grid and netted a profit. But without any usage restrictions yet this summer, we are probably on the hook for high power purchase costs.

Episode 3 – A Ludicrous and Outlandish Rate Increase Proposal

As mentioned in my last blog posting, Austin Energy wants to jack up the fixed monthly customer charge from $10.00 to $25.00. That extra $15 per month would generate a stunning annual windfall of $84 million. Suspicions abound that a great portion of that would be transferred to the City’s general fund. They could be planning to circumvent the Legislature’s 3.5% revenue cap on property tax increases.

In addition, the rate proposal calls for increasing the charges for small users of electricity. This is a shameful act from Austin Energy. Austin’s “inverted block” rate structure was never based on “cost of service.” It was proudly established over 40 years ago, pioneered by Austin consumer and environmental icon, Shudde Fath. Sticking low-income residents with such a penalty during a city affordability crisis should be unthinkable. Let’s just hope that the City Council agrees. In the meantime, we’ll have to wait out a formal rate hearing process, peppered with reams of paper full of lawyerly crosstalk and legal jumbo-jumbo.

By the way, we may not even need a rate increase. Austin Energy will be earning historic profits from a record hot season from May through September. I’ve asked the City Council to request an updated estimate on that.

A Blast From the Past

This is my fifth decade as a consumer activist in Austin electric rate battles. In the early 1980’s, I defeated a 20% electric rate increase, by getting it cut in half. Late one night, I discovered a “magic sentence” in the City Budget. It stated that the 20% rate increase was based in part on the passage of lignite bonds in a City election. Well, the budget was adopted before the election, and the lignite bonds failed. City staff forgot to mention that detail to the City Council when they passed the rate increase.

Get Ready For A Big Shock – Watch Out For Your Next Electric Bill!

By Bill Oakey – July 18, 2022

We all know that electricity can shock you, if you touch a live wire. But within days, hundreds of thousands of Austinites will be shocked out of their socks, by looking at their electric bills. Make sure you are sitting down before you look.

The basic rates have not changed – yet.  But the historic summer heat wave is causing big shockwaves for three important reasons:

1. The war in Ukraine has caused a severe shortage in Europe of the natural gas used for electric power plants. Texas has been exporting lots of gas to European countries. This has caused our own gas prices to skyrocket. And, even worse gas shortages in Europe may be coming soon.

2. Texas has fallen behind in building new power plants to keep up with climate change and population growth. This article explains the grim consequences.

3. Austin Energy is required to sell electricity at the fluctuating market rate determined by ERCOT. Our ERCOT power grid uses a demand-based pricing structure that allows energy producers and wholesalers to charge wildly inflated prices. No other grid anywhere else in the country uses this terribly flawed system. During last year’s winter storm, the legalized price-gouging caused several Texas utilities to take on massive debts. This summer, the exorbitant rates are not as high as that winter. But at close to $1,500 per megawatt hour, they are staggeringly higher than the normal rate of $40 to $50 per megawatt hour.

Why does Texas use such a crazy, unfair system that can cripple the finances of Texas businesses and families? The simple answer is political cronyism. The Good Old Boys in the oil and gas industry laughed all the way to the bank after the big winter storm. Other fat cats got fatter by making lucrative investments in Texas energy futures on Wall Street. All while many Texans, some who died, sat huddled under blankets, freezing in the dark during that storm.

Did the Legislature “fix” the grid during their last session? Well, they applied a few bandaids. On the financial side, they lowered the power grid price cap from $9,000 to $5,000 per megawatt hour. So, now the outrageous price limit is only 100 times the normal rate. Whoopie!

Here’s a Look at ERCOT’s Recent and Current Pricing:

1. Houston provides a good example.

2. A good overview of ERCOT policies and pricing.

3. Check out the ERCOT dashboard to see the current daily prices for wholesale electricity.

4. Keep in mind that Austin Energy buys electricity and also sells electricity through ERCOT. So, the final impact on ratepayers is the net gain or loss from those transactions each month.

5. Check out this link to compare ERCOT pricing with other U.S. power grids.

We just have to hope that ERCOT doesn’t reach an emergency status this summer, like it did during the winter storm. If that happens, the exorbitant price-gouging will reach stratospheric proportions, and could even last longer than the few days of the winter storm.

Are You Ready for a New Austin Energy Base Rate Increase?

Put down your high-priced bag of groceries, grab a beer and try to swallow this news. Austin Energy is just now wrapping up formal hearings on an outlandish rate increase proposal! The details call for a separate blog posting. But here are a couple of highlights:

1. They want to raise the fixed monthly customer charge from $10.00 to $25.00  As an accountant, I couldn’t resist doing some math. That’s $15.00 per month more for every residential customer in their service area. How much new revenue would that bring Austin Energy in one year? Here’s the calculation:

$15.00 X 467,291 customers X 12 = $84,112,380

And that’s based on customers in Fiscal Year 2021, which ends on August 31. What does Austin Energy plan to do with that huge windfall? The extra $84 million paid in customer charges, before a single light switch is flipped on?

What?? Did I hear somebody say that the City might transfer it to the General Fund? To try to get around the Legislature’s 3.5% revenue cap on increased property taxes? The City Council should strap themselves in, and get ready for an angry backlash. Whatever Austin Energy has up its sleeve needs to be delved into and explained with full transparency. Perhaps they were told to tack on those extra charges. Or, maybe they just woke up from a weird dream and proposed this on their own.

Whatever the case, there are consumer activists lurking in the shadows. We are coming out now, and looking over their shoulders, with calculators and spreadsheets in hand. Finally, here’s just one simple little question for Austin Energy and the City Council:

How Much Extra Profit Will the Utility Make During This Historic Summer Heat Wave?

The number of triple digit daily highs and higher than normal overnight lows has broken all records. And we still have almost two and a half months to go until the end of September. So, Austin Energy will record record profits for the 5 months covering May through September. I am asking the City Council to request that revenue estimate as soon as possible. The need for a hefty rate increase at this time should wither considerably. Just like our grass, trees, flowers and plants. It’s time for a major City Hall reckoning on this entire situation!

City’s Numbers On Homeless Costs Don’t Add Up

By Bill Oakey, June 29, 2022

I took a big gulp when I read the American-Statesman article about the “funding shortfall” of $93 million for housing the homeless. The article says the City has established a mind-bogging $515 million price tag for housing Austin’s homeless over three years. There is a big push to find corporate donors to cough up the $93 million. But, as you will see, their numbers don’t add up.

For starters, you can’t take all of the homeless people off the streets and put them into a home! Too many of them have serious substance abuse and mental health issues. Experience has shown that many (but not all) of these impaired individuals cannot maintain a home properly. Some will even refuse to be placed in a home.

I mention this, not for any lack of compassion, but for the sake of practical reality. The situation simply is what it is. What the City should be doing is raising large sums of money for mental health services and substance abuse rehabilitation. That should be a major component of the homeless solution plans.

Let’s Take a Look at the Math

Regardless of the merits of any of this, the City’s numbers do not add up. The City wants to build 1,300 housing units. The Statesman article suggests that with recent construction cost increases, a typical apartment unit would cost $275,000. So, let’s put a little cushion on that, and bump it to an even $300,000. Here’s how the math comes out:

$515,000,000 Total fundraising goal
    -93,000000 Alleged shortfall
$422,000,000 Available to spend

$300,000,000 Cost per housing unit
           X 1,300 Housing units needed
$390,000,000 Actual amount needed

$422,000,000 Available to spend
 -390,000,000 Actual amount needed
  $32,000,000 Left over, WITHOUT including the $93 million “shortfall”

Now, let’s look at it another way. Suppose they did raise the additional $93 million. Here’s what would happen:

$515,000,000 Available to spend
            / 1,300 Housing units needed
$396,153,846 Cost per unit

The City’s fundraising goal would provide roughly $400,000 per newly built housing unit for the homeless. That is a whopping sum of money for a very risky proposition. It assumes that all 1,300 of these folks could, or would, actually live sustainably in their own homes.

I would expect City officials and homeless advocates to do an artful dance around these numbers. They will probably mention administrative costs. Well, I can’t imagine those adding up to the $32 million left over without the shortfall, or the full $125 million, if you tack on the $93 million.

Perhaps they are allowing for other homeless services besides housing. If that’s the case, then it brings up a huge problem with the City’s lack of transparency to the public. Where in the &@#!!_&$#! are these giant mountains of taxpayer money and private donations for the homeless actually going?? What are the metrics? 

At the very least, we deserve to see answers to these basic questions:

1. How many homeless folks have been settled into housing in the last five years?

2. What is the annual budget for cleaning up homeless camps? Is there an upcoming  budget plan for providing sufficient staff to keep these camps clean and sanitary?

3. What is the annual budget for providing substance abuse rehab and mental health services for the homeless? What are the recent annual metrics for the numbers of people successfully treated with these services?

4. Does the City have a specific policy and the necessary staff to ensure that local businesses and homeowners are sufficiently protected from homeless crime?

5. What are the metrics for resolving issues of homeless crime? How many people have been arrested per recent year? What are the City’s policies for making arrests for homeless crimes? What are the specific metrics for prosecutions, prison time served, probation granted, release without prosecution, etc.? Is there sufficient accountability imposed on homeless folks who commit crimes to discourage these offenders from doing it again?

When all of these questions are satisfactorily answered, I sincerely believe that the public and potential corporate donors will show their compassion, and be much more willing to get on board with an aggressive plan to deal with our homeless dilemma.

What Are the Requirements to Get a Free Home?

This question is not intended to reflect badly on the unfortunate folks who lose their jobs, while facing devastating medical issues they can’t afford, and find themselves out on the street. Certainly, these folks need public services. But a program that offers free homes, valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars could become very tempting. What would prevent a fraudster from storing their belongings with a friend, and pitching a tent to become “homeless?” Or, what if a group of folks facing 30% or 40% rent increases, decided to stay in Austin and try to qualify for free homes? How will the City determine who is legitimately entitled to this grand prize of a benefit?

At first glance, this question might seem preposterous to longtime homeless advocates. If so, that just proves my point about the need for transparency. Will some of the newly constructed homes be intended only for transitional housing? Can we assume that the folks have to either buy the home, rent it or move out, if they get a job and become self-sufficient? Or, are they allowed to keep the free homes for life? Will these free homes come with a Federal tax liability, like the cars that were once given to Oprah Winfrey’s audience? The public needs to know, and we haven’t been told.

There Is a Big Shortfall, But It’s Not Financial

The City’s thinking falls far short of where It ought to be. Austin has a broad range of critical needs. In all of our history, major endeavors costing hundreds of millions of dollars have been debated, discussed and decided with significant public input. Major  projects have often required months, if not years of community involvement before we came together to approve them. On the homeless issue, our City leaders have made huge financial commitments, without large-scale community input. Discussions were held, of course, but not to the extent that we know many details about how the money is being spent. Or whether the public is comfortable with the vast amounts being spent. We haven’t seen any metrics on the progress made to house the homeless, or address the mental health, sanitation and public safety components of the issue.

Austin has a major affordability problem that impacts every neighborhood. We have a lopsided, tech-based economy that has created an income inequality crisis. It threatens our diversity, and is probably not economically sustainable. The Project Connect transit plan is spiraling out of control, with ballooning cost projections. Its odds of actually being completed, with miles of tunnels and a split-level underground fantasy land are slim to none. And we face a climate change challenge that threatens our quality of life, including severe wildfire dangers.

Bottom line – $515 million is a staggering sum to put into a single basket among all of our critical needs. Especially, without transparency and community consensus.

A Parting Thought

If and when the City finally decides to provide some transparency, I would urge them to reinforce their assumptions about the viability of their homeless initiatives. Please show us some examples of other cities that have a prove record of success, using the approaches that our taxpayer dollars will be funding. Let’s hope that the outcome looks better than what we see in San Francisco and L.A.

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “Someone’s Child” – Matthews, Wright & King
  2. “Ain’t Got No Home” – Clarence “Frogman” Henry
  3. “Green Green Grass of Home” – Tom Jones
  4. “Sloop John B” – The Beach Boys
  5. “Detroit City” – Bobby Bare

The Cold, Harsh Realities Of Anti-Abortion Radicalism

By Bill Oakey – June 25, 2022

The focus on anti-abortion radicalism will eventually shift to its aftermath. What will become of the millions of forced-to-be-be born children? And what will become of their parents and their families? You never hear extremist Republicans speak about either of those concerns.

There is one thing we can count on without question. Republicans will do absolutely nothing to help protect the “precious lives” of the newly born. The shallow and heartless reality is precisely the exact opposite. Republicans will do everything in their power to hinder the well-being of the women who are forced to give birth, and their unwanted or unexpected children.

The so-called “Pro Life” movement should have always been labeled “Pro Sad Life.” Take a simple look at the big picture of life in America today. Then, plug in millions of new children, mostly born into poverty.

Wealthy investors are sweeping through neighborhoods across the country, and buying up blocks of homes. They are outbidding young would-be homeowners who are starting new families. These same investors are scooping up apartments, trailer parks and every other type of housing. Their plan is to trap the next generation of Americans into entire lives burdened with ever-increasing exorbitant rental costs.

Just close your eyes and try to imagine the added burden of forced-birth children into the lives of these families. Even before a new pregnancy is discovered, tens of millions of families are struggling to make ends meet. The wages for middle class and lower-tier workers have been stagnant for a generation. These folks often have to work two jobs to get by. The additional cost burden of forced-birth children will only compound the hardships imposed upon these growing numbers of people.

But we won’t see Republican lawmakers at any level of government stepping up to help. On the contrary, they will try to obliterate the Affordable Care Act. They will continue to restrict and curtail Medicaid and other safety net programs. And all the while, they will attemp to claim the moral high ground. As pathetic and utterly despicable as one could imagine, these Republicans will dare to invoke “Christian values” as the foundation for their heartless actions. Make no mistake about it. There is nothing even remotely Christ-like in their motivations, their behavior or their legislative agenda.

Many women with health complications will die if their doctors are forbidden from performing abortions. Scores of children will grow up knowing that their father was a brutal and savage rapist. Or a perverted molester within their own family.

The ultimate result of taking away freedoms and replacing them with one-sided, misguided ideology is a breakdown of our entire culture. Broad-based, escalating poverty leads to increased mental health issues and widespread crime. Trapping single mothers and low to middle income families into a cycle of unaffordable living conditions will cripple the overall economy. When workers are squeezed with high housing costs, diminishing educational opportunities and insufficient health care, we can only expect trouble on many levels. That includes more suicides, domestic abuse, gun violence and homelessness.

Republicans will try to shrug it all off and turn away from these realities. In fact, reality itself has disappeared from their mindset. But, the social unrest and the devastating economic repercussions of their actions will serve to energize Democrats. Reality and truth are pretty tough adversaries to defeat. Polls show that overwhelming majorities of Americans do not support the extreme policy positions of the far right. These angry and hateful souls are not the only ones who know how to fight! We will have to work hard to ensure that love and compassion prevails.

Your Over-65 School Tax Freeze Will Thaw – And That’s Good News!

By Bill Oakey – May 24, 2022

My mother always told me not to refreeze anything in the refrigerator, after it has been frozen once. But that does not apply to our currently frozen over-65 and disabled school property taxes.

We have one adventurous news hound in Austin to thank for chasing down this winding tale of a story. I tip my hat to Bridget Grumet at the Austin American-Statesman. This will make you want to follow her reporting every week.

Grumet: New school property tax ceiling is ‘a 15-step math problem’ that benefits seniors

Bridget Grumet
Austin American-Statesman

Bill Oakey cleaning his West Austin condo. Photo by Jay Banner, Austin American-Statesman

The vast majority of voters in the May 7 election — nearly 87% — decided to lower the tax bills for homeowners who are disabled or over 65. But do you understand exactly how we just changed the school property tax freeze that has been a financial lifeline for about 2 million Texas households?

Don’t feel bad. I didn’t know the mechanics of it, either. Nor did Bill Oakey, a retired accountant and longtime taxpayer activist who runs the blog at AustinAffordability.com.

“Will our school taxes be reset back to the dollar amount that we paid in 2019? And then refrozen at that amount?” Oakey asked me a few days after voters approved Proposition 1. “Or will they be refrozen at whatever dollar amount they’re at in 2023?”

Actually, none of the above.

I promise you, this is a good news story for taxpayers. And I’ll do my best to keep the math digestible. But I figured if someone as plugged in as Oakey didn’t understand how Prop 1 worked, we could all use a fuller explanation.

Tax freeze was ‘a miracle’

For decades, as soon as a Texan got the special homestead exemption for older or disabled homeowners, that person’s school property taxes were frozen at that year’s amount. The school portion of their bill couldn’t go above that ceiling in future years, although it could be lower. (Notably, the freeze doesn’t apply to city or county taxes.)

The school portion of my property tax bill has shot up more than $700 over the past five years, so I can imagine what it means for older adults on fixed incomes to know they’re shielded from those kinds of costly spikes over the long term.

“Everybody I know that lives in Austin now, including me, probably wouldn’t be able to stay here if not for the over-65 tax freeze,” Oakey, 74, told me. “It was just a miracle it was on the books.”

But the freeze became an impediment of sorts in 2019, when the Legislature passed House Bill 3. The massive school finance reform package included a complicated plan to “compress” the school property tax rates, reining in the surging bills for homeowners like me.

That didn’t do much for older or disabled homeowners, though, because their bills were already frozen.

How low can it go?

Prop 1, the measure Texas voters approved this month, aims to bring some relief to that group of homeowners. But I must warn you, this is not the kind of thing you can calculate yourself.

“It’s like a 15-step math problem,” said David Clark, a senior policy analyst for state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican who authored the legislation behind Prop 1.

Here’s the basic gist:

Next year, tax collectors’ offices will unfreeze the school property tax bills for seniors and disabled homeowners, then recalculate by factoring in the compression rates for 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023. That will be the catch-up year for those homeowners, getting the benefit of several years’ worth of reduced rates that the rest of us already got.

As a result, the 2023 tax bill for older and disabled homeowners will be lower than their previous “frozen” amount. Then, under Prop 1, that lower amount becomes the new ceiling.

But not forever.

In 2024, and each year after that, the bill is once again unfrozen and recalculated, using the latest year’s compression rate, which is provided by the Texas Education Agency. In a worst-case scenario, if we hit a recession, the school property tax bill would stay the same as the year before. But most of the time, Clark said, the bill should drop a little more each year.

And each year, the lower amount becomes the new ceiling.

It’s like older and disabled homeowners are trading their tax ceiling for a limbo stick.

I should also note: As property owners pay less, the state is kicking in more dollars to ensure school districts don’t lose funding. The state dollars come from the general revenue pot that includes sales tax, taxes on the production of oil and natural gas, and other tax streams.

That infusion of state dollars is long overdue. For years, the state had reduced its contribution to school budgets because soaring property values led to higher property tax collections from the local districts. But, as any homeowner who has paid those bills knows, the rising burden on local taxpayers was unsustainable.

Making sense of your bill

You might have heard that under Prop 1, older adults on average will save $110 in 2023. Where did that figure come from?

Clark told me that Prop 1 will bring an estimated $220 million drop in school property tax collections from older and disabled homeowners that first year. Divide that by the 2 million Texans who get those particular homestead exemptions, and you arrive at $110.

Using similar back-of-the-envelope math, the state projects an additional $125 savings for those homeowners in 2024.

In reality, each senior or disabled homeowner has specific factors — how long they’ve had the tax freeze, what’s happening to home values in their area, what the compression rate for their district is — that make it impossible to guesstimate what Prop 1 will mean for their specific tax bill.

Photo by Jay Janner – Austin American-Statesman

Even local tax officials are still wrapping their heads around Prop 1. They’ll also have to factor in the other measure voters approved May 7, an increase to the general homestead exemption for all Texans.

Instead of knocking $25,000 off the value of a home when calculating school property taxes, Proposition 2 knocks off $40,000. (Older and disabled residents already get an extra $10,000 exemption on top of the general one for all homeowners.) Depending on how low their already-frozen bill is, however, older and disabled homeowners might not notice much of a difference from the higher homestead exemption under Prop 2.

Officials in Travis County, where nearly 75,000 people have the older adult or disabled person’s homestead exemption, expect to compare notes with other tax collectors and work with their software vendors to figure out the best way to calculate the bills.

Then it will be a matter of helping homeowners understand their 2023 bills, though I’m guessing most taxpayers will be satisfied with the bottom line.

“Usually people are pretty happy when their tax ceiling goes down, as long as they know it’s not an error,” Tiffany Seward, spokeswoman for the Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office, told me.

And that was pretty much the case when I relayed all of this to Oakey. The math was more complicated than either of us expected. But given the rising cost of living, and the fact that retired teachers and retired state employees haven’t seen a cost-of-living adjustment in roughly two decades, Oakey welcomed the tax break.

“I’m very happy to hear they’ve done this,” he said, “because seniors are losing ground.”

Grumet is the Statesman’s Metro columnist. Her column, ATX in Context, contains her opinions. Share yours via email at bgrumet@statesman.com or via Twitter at @bgrumet. Find her previous work at statesman.com/news/columns.

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:

1. “The Freeze” – Tony and Joe, 1958
2. “Let It Go” – From Disney’s “Frozen”
3. “Limbo Rock” – Chubby Checker, Original 1962 single version
4. “Taxman” – The Beatles

City Should Establish Lots of Senior Discounts

By Bill Oakey – May 22, 2022

Austin’s affordability disaster has reached every neighborhood in the city. Few people were surprised by the latest round of obnoxiously high tax appraisals. Our City leaders created this problem by marketing the city relentlessly, until the growth spiraled out of control. No other city  in Texas has seen the steep rise in housing costs on the scale that exists here.

Our long term residents should not be shoved aside, just to make room for more luxury housing units. Instead, the City should look for ways to keep the older folks here. After all, we are the ones who worked, volunteered and paid our taxes, to create the lively atmosphere and high quality of life that makes Austin special.

It’s Time for the City to Implement a Full Range of Senior Discounts

I am making the following recommendations to the City Council to consider for senior discounts:

1. All fixed customer charges on utility bills – for electric, water, wastewater, trash collection

2. Admission tickets, services charges and parking fees for all events, both public and private, that are held at City-owned facilities or on City-owned land. This includes music festivals, wine tastings and the multitude of other events at Zilker Park, Botanical Gardens, Auditorium Shores, etc.The City’s contracts with private entities that use City parks and facilities should be modified to require senior discounts.

3. General admission and parking for City parks and City facilities at all times, even when no special events are happening. State and national parks already provide senior discounts.

4. Fees for all parking meters, parking lots and parking garages throughout the city. This includes libraries, City Hall and all other City facilities.

The City should roll out this initiative with a major public relations campaign. They should encourage all private businesses to partner with them and offer similar senior discounts. We are starting to see far too many luxury events with sky-high prices. And it can cost an arm and a leg just to park, before going in to these events. That’s fine for the folks who can shrug it off with a few taps on their phones. But, it’s high time for our City officials to recognize that Austin still has some of the local people who cannot light a cigar with a $100 bill.