Utility Shut-offs, Evictions, Court Dates Suspended Due to Pandemic

City and county officials aim to soften economic blow of COVID-19

Council Member Greg Casar (Photo by John Anderson)

In response to the spread of COVID-19, Austinites who are unable to pay their utility bills will not have their service shut off, per an announcement from Austin Energy. The decision to suspend indefinitely service disconnections came hours after the city's first cases of the disease caused by the new coronavirus were confirmed.

The city-owned electric utility has the power to suspend disconnections on its own, without an order from the mayor or city council. It also handles billing for Austin residents' water and wastewater, trash pick-up, and other such services, all of which are protected from shut-offs for the time being.

Austin Energy spokeswoman Jennifer Herber said the utility would “monitor the situation closely” and respond to the recommendations from city and state officials, but had no estimated date for when it would resume shutoffs for nonpayment. She acknowledged the role the city's utilities will play in ensuring the good hygiene practices Austin need to maintian. “Being able to wash your hands will obviously be very important,” Herber told us. “A lot of folks will be working from home, and schools are extending spring break, so we want to make sure everyone has utilities during that time.”

The utility offers customer assistance programs for those who have trouble paying their bill. Anyone who may face financial hardship due to the spread of the coronavirus is encouraged to call AE’s customer line to apply for one of those programs. Call 512-494-9400 for more information.

In more good news for Austinites who may be struggling to pay bills in the months ahead, Travis County's five justices of the peace issued a standing order halting all eviction hearings until April 1. Additionally, no writs of possession, which empower county officials to forcibly remove people from their homes following an eviction, will be issued for 60 days following the order's taking effect today, Friday, March 13.

Court appearances for traffic and Class C misdemeanor offenses that had been scheduled before April 1 will also be extended, per the order. Defendants will be contacted by court administrators to reschedule hearings; no warrants will be issued for failure to appear offenses in traffic/Class C cases during the same 60 day period.

These moves follow calls from city and county elected officials, who are moving rapidly to soften the economic blow Austin’s economy is barreling toward amid the spread of COVID-19. “We need to act now to protect the most vulnerable people in our city,” Council Member Greg Casar told us on Thursday, March 12. “Stopping utility shutoffs and suspending eviction hearings is one way we can do that.” Casar also said he is looking at ways the city can speed up construction projects to help create jobs for people who lose work due to economic downturn.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

COVID-19, coronavirus, utility shutoffs, eviction notices, court appearances, Austin Energy, justice of the peace, Greg Casar

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