Austin Energy Uses Social Service Strategies to Assist Vulnerable Populations
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- Aug 17, 2019 12:47 am GMT
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Austin Energy was recently granted an Expanding Excellence Award in the Innovation in People & Process category by CS Week. The award recognized the development of the utility’s wrap-around support services model, which provides critical services to populations in the community who are undergoing financial hardships and struggle to pay their utility bills. The collection of services is known as the Customer Assistance Program (CAP) and includes financial support, case management, dispute resolution, energy efficiency improvements, and water conservation.
Addressing Critical Issues
According to Ronnie Mendoza, Customer Care Manager at Austin Energy, “CAP helps to fill a gap for customers who need financial support in meeting their utility services obligation.” Additionally, the program serves to fulfill the utility’s brand promise to be customer-driven and community-focused.
To build the program, Mendoza and others within the utility determined which segments of the community were having trouble maintaining their utility services, and which ones had a critical need to keep services active regardless of their ability to pay. The next step was developing programs to support those customers. Mendoza notes, “The innovation was in Austin Energy’s hiring social workers to manage these programs and develop processes with a social service perspective.” These employees perform a variety of functions, including outreach, network building, community building, case management, and education.
A Model to Be Proud Of
The process to develop CAP took place over a 10-year period and involved the Customer Assistance Program Team, Austin Energy Executive Team, and over 50 community partners and advocates. Mendoza recalls, “The model and programming required executive and city council support. The community was heavily involved in designing and making recommendations on each component. There were myriad hurdles and problems to resolve, but we finally developed a model we were proud of and could showcase as a utility best practice.”
The biggest challenge was getting all parties to understand why a utility should take on a role traditionally provided by a human services organization. Mendoza explains how it was done: “Our Deputy General Manager kicked off the initiative with a book club. He invited employees from different parts of the organization to participate by reading and discussing the book Poverty & the Public Utility.” Once employees were bought in to the idea, it was easier for program leaders to collaborate with community organizations who provide social support services.
Solutions and Options
The outreach begins at the customer’s own “kitchen table,” offering solutions and options when financial, medical, or other issues prevent them from being able to make utility payments. Programs within CAP include the following:
- Discount Program. Customers on low or fixed incomes who participate in certain state, federal, or local assistance programs are eligible for utility bill discounts.
- Financial Support Plus 1. The Plus 1 fund provides emergency financial help for customers having temporary difficulty paying their utility bills. Program eligibility is determined by community organizations. (Customers may also contribute to this fund via their monthly bills.)
- Services for the Medially Vulnerable. If someone in a customer’s household has a long-term disease or critical illness, they may be eligible for the City’s registry of medically vulnerable customers and receive special support services, including additional time to pay their bills and one-on-one case management.
- Low-Income Weatherization. Customers receive no-cost home improvements such as attic insulation, duct system improvements, solar screens, LED lighting, or an air conditioner tune-up. To qualify, customers must earn 200% or less of the Federal Poverty Level and reside in a structure that is valued at $250K or less, smaller than 2,000 square feet, and older than 10 years.
- Community Connections Education. Weatherization customers may attend classes to learn how to get the most out of this program. Subjects include Understanding Your Bill, Energy and Water Conservation, Indoor Air Quality, Budgeting, Sources of Energy and Water, and How to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
- Arrearage Management Program. For a customer with past-due utility bills, the City of Austin applies partial payments over a period of time if the customer pays the agreed-upon monthly current charges on or before the due date. To take advantage of this program, the customer must be enrolled in CAP.
Ensuring CAP remains relevant for customers in need is a continuous effort. “Though the program began 10 years ago,” says Mendoza, “we continue to look for ways to improve current programming and to enhance other services to meet specific needs for specialty populations. We revamp programs annually and conduct ongoing quality improvement.”
What programs does your utility have for customers struggling to keep their utility services active? Please share in the comments.