Point Austin: Dick Brown's Hermit Crabs

The outcries of HURF should make Austinites hurl

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (Photo by John Anderson)

It's not clear yet how the struggle over the Austin Energy rate changes will finally play out, but whatever the solution, it's gonna take a while. That seems fitting, since the main reason we're in this fix is that AE (and successive City Councils) waited 17 years to acknowledge the necessity of a hike. Incremental increases would have been much easier to budget and to swallow, but there was always some perfectly good reason ("It's not an emergency!") to delay the pain.

Council is apparently leaning toward an interim increase that would hold the line until a more permanent solution – one council and AE can sell to the public – can be found. I wish them luck, since there are still people stepping to the lectern to insist that there should be no increase at all. That's fine, but folks defending that position should at least provide a list of which city services they want to eliminate along with the AE funds transfer that our publicly owned utility has provided us all, lo these many years.

Public safety, parks, libraries, and social services don't come cheap – but hey, everybody loves higher property taxes, right?

Suburban Pitchforks

Even more entertaining has been the outcry from the hinterlands – those oppressed suburbanites represented by Home­own­ers United for Rate Fairness, a backlash group organized by lobbyist (and longtime Austin-basher) Dick Brown and North­rop Grum­man project manager Mark Farrar, ostensibly on behalf of the 45,000 (their number) out-of-city ratepayers who are served by AE but don't have a vote in Austin city elections. "Taxation without representation," they cry, insisting that they pay for electricity but "don't use the city services" underwritten by AE fund transfers.

I suppose Brown, Farrar, and the other 44,998 United Hermits for Fairness never set foot inside city limits, never drive on Austin streets, never take part in the economic or cultural life of Austin, and live wherever they do in the outback only by accident, where they were utterly confounded one day to discover that a major metropolis – with all the economic opportunity, vitality (even reliable electric service) that implies – just happens to exist down the road. (Brown apparently still has offices in town, and North­rop's facilities are in the city, so I guess those two can't claim total ignorance – or lack of city services.) And I suppose the Her­­mits relied 100% on out-of-city ratepayers to build AE's infrastructure in their neighborhoods and to instantly repair all their storm outages solely on their own dimes, and when there's a public emergency in those parts – a wildfire or two or six, say – they tell Austin firefighters to stay home; they'll manage just fine with a bucket brigade.

The notion that these mostly quite comfortable suburbanites are subsidizing Austinites, and not the other way around, requires a habitual blindness to economic reality. If not for Austin taxpayers underwriting suburban infrastructure with their state taxes, property taxes, gas taxes, and bond votes, those sprawling subdivisions literally could not exist. The next time Travis County comes calling for $215 million or so in bonds for out-of-city roads, parks, and other projects, Austin voters should consider a page out of Dick Brown's playbook and ask, "What's in it for us?"

Turn Out the Lights

Although they won't be, Brown and HURF should be grateful that Austinites are generally not me-firsters, and that most understand that we're all in this together – notwithstanding Public Citizen director Tom Smith's wry suggestion that we erect toll gates at the city limits for HURFers who think road fairies built the streets they consider their birthright. As for votes, Brown has historically sneered at Austin voters, going directly to the Legislature and state Republicans to impose his and his clients' will on the city. He's already got state reps and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst singing his tune on the AE matter. Whatever council decides, now or six months from now, likely as not he'll be at the Public Utility Com­mis­sion, pleading the case of those poor disenfranchised suburbanites treated so outrageously by the big bad city.

I understand that explicit and considerable threat puts the city in a fix, but I'm sorry the mayor and AE conceded the fight early by proposing a 6.1% rate cut for out-of-towners. HURF won't stop at that – they're insisting they're "overtaxed" by 15%, and moreover, that a "tiered" system charging heavy users more is discriminatory, and that Austin's environmental policies – its emphasis on conservation and cleaner fuels – impose an undue burden on owners of big suburban homes, whose interests are supposedly served only by the cheapest fuel source of the moment.

Some council members are balking at the suburban rate break, and bully for them. I understand this is a financially complicated and highly politicized problem, and I don't envy anybody the job of finding a workable solution. But I also don't believe Brown, Farrar, and company should get away with imposing on the public their self-serving fantasy that Austin, AE, and Austin ratepayers are treating them unfairly.

It just ain't so.

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Dick Brown, Austin Energy, AE rate increase, AE, Homeowners United for Rate Fairness, HURF, taxes, Mark Farrar, suburbs

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