Austin utility customers in need of bill relief may quadruple due to pandemic

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Austin provides utility bill relief to about 7,000 households every year, but that number could jump as high as 28,000 because of economic hardships from the COVID-19 pandemic, a utility manager told KXAN.

The money allocated for utility customer relief assistance is usually depleted every year as it is, but this year many customers are applying for relief who never have before.

“The definition of vulnerable is going to look very different for the next few months,” said Ronnie Mendoza, Austin Energy’s Manager for Customer Assistance Programs.

KXAN has heard from dozens of people around Austin seeking help as utility and other debts mount during the coronavirus economy.

Austin has launched a new website where customers who have trouble paying their utility bills can apply.

Customers are eligible for The Plus 1 Emergency Financial Support Program if they or a household member have a COVID-19 financial hardship based on illness, caring for a family member, shelter in place orders or the closure of non-essential businesses.

You can check for eligibility here.

“We evaluate whether it’s their current bill or whether it’s past due debt,” said Mendoza. “It really depends on what’s going on in the household and what the customer is actually requesting assistance for.”

The Plus 1 program is an expansion of the city’s Customer Assistance Program, which provides help to low-income customers using a ‘community benefit charge’ customers see on their bill.

But Mendoza says rates won’t be going up as a result of the larger number of people expected to see utility assistance.

He says this is largely due to a measure passed by Austin City Council earlier this month, providing around $46 million in relief to customers through rate reductions and these types of customer assistance programs.

Each customer could receive the maximum of $3,000 of assistance over a 12-month period. The expansion doubles this amount from $1,500.

Earlier this month, KXAN reported that the Public Utility Commission of Texas is getting 10,000 to 13,000 calls a day from customers around the state concerned about keeping their lights on and water running. 

KXAN Investigator Kevin Clark will have a full report tonight at 10.

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