AUSTIN (KXAN) — City auditors dug into why Austin Energy is “behind” on tree trimming around the city and recommended more accurate data and long-term planning could help, according to a new report.

Austin Energy trims trees around power lines year-round, in order to prevent tree branches from
brushing up against or falling on power lines — causing outages or even wildfires. In February, following an ice storm that took down tree limbs and knocked out power for thousands of people over several days, city leaders faced questions about the effectiveness of the utility’s vegetation management program.

Council ultimately directed the Auditor’s Office to take a closer look.

A draft of the audit, published this week and up for consideration at an Audit and Finance Committee meeting on Wednesday, noted several reasons why the city is not only falling short of its own goal to trim trees on a seven-year cycle but also why it ranks behind other peer cities’ goals.

Why is Austin behind?

An image from a draft audit of Austin's vegetation management program. (Graphic: City of Austin Auditor's Office)
An image from a draft audit of Austin’s vegetation management program.
(Graphic: City of Austin Auditor’s Office)

As previously reported by KXAN investigators and reiterated by city auditors, the city council directed Austin Energy to reduce the “clearance” distance — meaning how many feet crews trim around a power line — back in 2006.

These reduced clearances were supposed to be temporary, but instead remained in place until 2019, when the utility realigned its policy with industry standards. Since then, Austin Energy’s Forestry Department has been working to tackle the overgrown canopy that developed.

In 2021, the city increased the budget for tree trimming and, in 2023, utility leadership told KXAN investigators it had hired four new contractors to help with the backlog.

However, according to the draft audit, “these newly hired contractors have not started actual trim work and it is unclear at this time how these additional tree trimming contractors will impact [Austin Energy’s] progress.”

What more can be done?

The draft audit stated that Austin Energy has implemented most of its best practices for tree trimming, but it still recommended two, specific improvements: long-term planning and record-keeping.

The audit stated the utility lacks a fully developed maintenance plan, making it difficult to “assess trimming progress across circuits, assess historical information such as timelines to make future estimates, and develop a way forward,” the audit said in part.

It went on to say, “there is no roadmap to show how to realistically achieve goals.”

The auditors also pointed out data issues have made it difficult for the utility to assess overall

They reviewed a sample of tree trimming data from January 2022 to May 2023 and found “inconsistencies.” For example, 90% of the dates in the hardcopy work plan did not match the dates recorded in the tree trimming database, with variances from one day up to 60 days.

The auditors also noted some status updates appeared to occur in an “unexpected order” or multiple times on different dates.

“The difference in dates makes it hard to understand the correct work status to accurately assess progress,” the audit stated.

KXAN’s Avery Travis is monitoring the Audit and Finance Committee’s meeting this morning and will update this story with details as they develop.