By Bill Oakey – May 5, 2021
If you have been reading this blog, you may be wondering – Why does this guy think he can beat City Hall? Well, I didn’t ask myself that question, back in1983. That’s when all the crazy adventures started. Stick around for a few wild stories, all of them the honest-to-God truth.
My First Encounter With the City Budget
In 1983, I had never met a City Council member. I don’t think I even knew all of their names. But I did know one thing. The newspaper sitting on the desk in the downtown accounting office where I worked was begging for my attention. So, once my lunch break came, I read the front page article.
It said, “City Council Approves 20% Electric Rate Hike.” I asked myself, how in the world could that be? Who ever heard of a rate increase that high? City Hall was only a few blocks away, so I took off walking over there. I was told that the rate increase was all explained in the City Budget. They gave me a copy, and I took it home that evening.
My newest circle of friends were folks I had met at Austin Neighborhoods Council meetings. Larry Deuser, their president, held some fun, informal gatherings at the Copper Skillet at 3418 North Lamar. I showed up with my nose stuck in the City Budget. That raised a few eyebrows. Who is this guy, they wondered? Is he really one of us? Who lingers over those boring numbers in the City Budget?
Late one night, probably close to midnight, I sat straight up in bed. I stared at one amazing sentence in the introduction to the Budget. I read it twice, just to be sure. To paraphrase, it said, “The 20% electric rate increase is based in large part on successful passage of the lignite coal bonds in the October election.” Well, the Budget was adopted and signed in late September. It took effect on October 1st. The lignite bonds failed by a comfortable margin in the October 22nd election. That was thanks to flower salesman, Max Nofziger’s clean energy campaign. Max was later elected to the City Council.
The next day after the big sentence discovery, I called Council Member Sally Shipman’s office, and asked for an appointment. Her name had been mentioned positively by some of my new friends. I had zero clout at City Hall, but my revelation prompted them to schedule an appointment with Ms. Shipman at the Avenue Restaurant at 908 Congress.
To this day, I wish I had a picture of the look on her face, when I slid the Budget across the table and showed her the “magic sentence.” She gave me the most vociferous apology I had ever heard. She said the City Staff had never called it to their attention. She swore that she would never have voted for a 20% electric rate increase if she had known that information. I took her advice and spoke to the City Electric Utility Commission at their next meeting.
Fast forward a few weeks to a City Council meeting that holds special memories. The Electric Utility Commission gave their monthly report. Included was my recommendation to cut the rate increase in half, to just 10%. The City Council agreed. Then my mom in San Antonio finally quit saying, “You can’t fight City Hall.”
One of Austin’s most colorful characters back then was Peck Young. Among many other things, he served as chairman of the Electric Utility Commission. It’s hard to describe him. He always wore a drooping, white cowboy hat. If he launched into a tirade, just the wind coming from his direction was enough to make people scatter. But I was not easily intimidated.
In my humble opinion, Peck was right on the issues, most of the time. But we came to verbal blows one morning on KLBJ-AM, on the Olin Murrell show. I was trying to get the City Council to pass an ordinance regulating the transfer of Electric Utility profits to the General Fund. I understood its purpose, but the amount had been growing by about 20% per year. Peck argued vigorously against me, but the City Council passed the ordinance that I suggested.
The 1985 City Council election was a moment for triumphant celebration. We elected a progressive slate of candidates, hoping to slow down the developers, protect neighborhoods, and save Barton Springs and the Barton Creek Watershed from pollution. The new Mayor, Frank Cooksey, was joined by George Humphrey, Sally Shipman and Smoot Carl-Mitchell.
I joined a group of friends on election night. In those days, we took our campaign signs to Palmer Auditorium, and stood behind our candidates in the bright glare of the television lights. The whole town was caught up in the excitement, for better or worse. Shortly after I walked into the auditorium, I saw a familiar figure heading towards me. It was the first time I had seen Peck Young since the KLBJ radio encounter. He approached with a broad grin on his face, and stuck out his hand. “How would you like to be on the Electric Utility Commission?” he asked. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted.
On the Commission, we oversaw more than a few heated rate battles, mostly because the big high tech companies always wanted deep cuts, at the expense of residential customers. Peck Young, Merl Moden and Shudde Fath stood squarely on our side. Shudde was, and still is an iconic Austin legend. As a founding member of the Commission, she was my mentor. Shudde turned 105 this past January.
My Name Is Bill And I Would Like To Lower Yours
As the electric rate battles raged in the 1980’s, I often found myself buried in thick reports, laced with arcane terminology and mounds of details. It wasn’t until late in the decade that most people had personal computers. So, I relied on a pocket solar calculator that I had purchased at Foleys for $20.00. My biggest challenge was trying to reach the public with plain and simple facts. We were up against powerful special interests, who had more clout with the City Council.
I was in several media debates with the chairman of the Federation of Austin Industrial Ratepayers. During that time, I wrote a letter to the editor for the Austin American-Statesman. It went something like this:
Isn’t it interesting how many English words have more than one meaning. Take, for example, the word, “bill.” Birds have bills, entertainers are listed on bills, the Legislature passes bills. But the worst kind of bill is the kind you have to pay – the kind that keeps going up, like an Austin electric bill. Well, I have a very simple message. My name is Bill and I would like to lower yours.
The last line became my slogan.
Coming up in Part 2 – The City spends over $200,000 on a hearings examiner and other trappings for a convoluted rate-setting spectacle. And the strange case of $43 million that disappeared from the Electric Utility accounts.