City of Austin Sticks it to Small Business Again

I was sitting at my desk not too long ago, front door open to catch the breeze, when I noticed a car pull up outside, bearing the label “Corix Utility Services.” A mousy little man emerged from the car holding a leaflet. He wore a strange expression, seemed to have trouble expressing himself, and had nervous, darting eyes. I was instantly reminded of Andy Kauffman’s Foreign Man character, all weirdly inappropriate expressions and evasive manners. Foreign Man stands at full arm’s length and hands me one of those blue little hangers they leave on your door when they are about to cut off your electricity. Then he turns on his heel and departs about as fast as his skinny little legs can carry him.

This kind of surprised me, because to the best of my knowledge I was current on the bill. So I went to the Austin Energy website and logged into my account to find a most unwelcome surprise: a huge bill, larger than I had ever before received. After picking myself up off the floor, I took a closer look at this bill. In addition to the hefty monthly electricity charge, inflated by recent rate hikes and a slew of new and opaquely named fees, was a nearly $1000 upcharge covering 8 months of bills. This series of bill had been recalculated, apparently, on a higher rate plan than had previously applied. Retroactively. And the recalculated balance was due. Right now. Nice.

Convinced that there must have been some kind of billing mistake, I called the main number for the City of Austin Utilities, and after working through the menu of options to reach a representative for commercial accounts, was informed that “due to the high call volume” there would be a formidably long wait time. I guessed that I wasn’t the only one to get an unpleasant surprise that day.

After about forty minutes, the hold music abruptly gave way to a young female voice: “City of Austin, this is [so-and-so] may I help you.” Restraining my irritation, I briefly recapped the problem and stated my case that there must have been some kind of mistake in the bill. Without a moment’s hesitation, the young lady patiently explained, for what must have been the hundredth time that day, exactly what had happened. As it turns out, the City of Austin had revisited its formula for calculating electric rates for high-demand periods, and by this revised formula, it was determined that they had undercharged their commercial accounts for many months running. Hence the upcharge. Hence the cutoff notice.

I asked the young lady for details, but her explanation was so incomprehensibly dense and laden with jargon that she might as well  have been speaking Mandarin. It became clear that I was wasting my time; the upcharge was not going away. In a synthetically conciliatory tone of voice, the young lady said that she could break the upcharge up into a few equal chunks, payable with each of the next few billing cycles, but that would be the best she could do.

Let this sink in for a moment. Using some subjective formula that only they understood, the City of Austin determined they hadn’t charged commercial customers enough. And their method of correcting their mistake was to sock said customers with a large, retroactively applied fee, due immediately.

Now imagine that you have a business that provides some kind of recurrent service, lawn care for example, for which your customers are billed monthly. Imagine further that you decided to charge every single one of your customers at a higher rate, retroactively, for three-quarters of a year’s worth of services because you made a decision that you had not previously charged them enough. How do you think those customers might respond? The answer is obvious: Those customers would pretty quickly become former customers, and rightly so. And they might also have a few choice words for you as they bade you farewell.

You and I know this, so it would never, ever occur to us to do such a thing. This is the thinking of normal, sensible persons. But Austin Energy, being both a bureaucracy and a monopoly, does not see it this way. It has no problem punishing you or I with an inflated bill, payable immediately, at the same time that it rewards itself with a brand-new headquarters at a cost of over 60 million dollars. This facility, intended to replace the perfectly adequate one it has now, is so lavishly overdone that it has been described as a municipal “Taj Mahal.” Note to Austin Energy management: This is not a compliment.

You might wonder: How could anyone be that tone deaf? And in so doing you underestimate the boundless capacity of the overlord class to behave with unalloyed arrogance. Austin Energy thinks this way because it can. There is no downside whatsoever to self-serving and predatory behavior when your customers have no choice.

A monopoly is not necessarily a problem until it decides to act like one. Austin Energy, the heart and soul of a city government that worships money above all else, ran the numbers and decided that it was time to act like a monopoly because there was no good reason not to.

This is more than a routine irritation. It is symbolic of the runaway greed that is consuming our city. It is one more turn of the screw, maybe that final one turn too many that makes what was once unthinkable suddenly thinkable. Maybe it’s time to give up, to accept that the town I once loved and proudly called home is dead and gone. Maybe, after nearly fifty years, it’s time to shake the dust of this town from my feet and start over somewhere else.

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