Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for Travis County and six others across the state on Saturday. That opened the door to deploy “all available” state resources necessary to help alleviate the issues. Austin and Travis County officials issued their own disaster declarations last week.
Across the whole state, 32,600 people are without power, down from the near-half a million in the middle of last week. Marked progress has been made, but Austin Energy continues to struggle to restore power for the remnant after an ice storm downed power lines across its service area.
Falling tree branches are the foremost culprit of the circuit disruption, and certain areas experienced repeated outages after successive breaks occurred.
“Based on current information, we expect to restore power to nearly all remaining customers by Sunday, February 12, with the exception of those in need of electrical repairs to customer-owned or maintained equipment,” the City of Austin said in a Monday morning release. In addition to home outages, there were 36 traffic signals out as of Sunday afternoon.
But looking ahead to this week’s forecast, the city cautioned, “The expected weather conditions this week may damage power lines and already weakened trees, causing additional outages, increasing the risk for our lineworkers, and slowing progress.”
Austin Energy, the city-owned utility provider, contracted linemen from surrounding utilities to assist with the repair endeavor.
Officials stated that the ice accumulation was heavier and more pervasive than during the 2021 blackouts, which were caused mainly by a statewide power grid failure and not local downed power lines.
Linemen are working around the clock to fix the issues and as of Monday morning, the city said the large segments of outages have been remedied.
On top of the outage length, Austin Energy and the city have been heavily criticized for their communication with the public, or lack thereof, including by new Mayor Kirk Watson. The first press conference on the outages was held on Thursday, two days after the problems first began to compound.
In a Friday update, Watson said, “We know that mistakes were made and … they will be corrected.” The utility first gave an estimated restoration period of 12 to 24 hours on Tuesday, then amended it to last Friday at 6 p.m., and again changed it to “indefinite” until Sunday, February 12.
The state disaster declaration opens the door for a couple of things that property owners should note: affected cities and counties may adopt a higher property tax rate this year than previously available, and taxpayers may qualify for increased temporary exemptions.
In 2019’s marquee property tax reform bill, Senate Bill 2, the tax rate increase cap was reduced to 3.5 percent for cities and counties. But a quasi-loophole was established; in the case of a declared disaster, localities in those affected counties may raise property taxes up to 8 percent — the old cap — during that tax year.
During the pandemic, which entailed a statewide declared disaster, many localities such as Austin utilized that loophole despite the coronavirus pandemic having more of an economic than physical effect. When creating that loophole, legislators had in mind Hurricane Harvey, not COVID-19 — so they wrote out pandemics from qualifying disasters during the 2021 session.
But given this storm caused physical damage, once the governor issued his declaration, the standard was met.
On the flip side, property owners may qualify for disaster exemptions; those range from 15 to 100 percent exemption based on the assessed damage during the given disaster. Property owners must file applications with their respective appraisal districts in order to receive the exemption.
The fallout of this event for Austin is likely to be extensive. Outages were more severe in Travis County than anywhere else across the state, and continue to linger.
About a year ago, Austin Water, the other city-owned utility, faced a multi-day boil notice due to an “internal operational issue” — staff errors — that caused water turbidity at one plant to trigger alarm. Despite the turbidity, the utility said there was “no evidence” any contaminants made it into the water supply.
The Austin City Council has used both Austin Energy and Austin Water to supplement its General Fund budget — $162 million between the two during this current budget cycle.
There have been calls to bury power lines as is done in some northern states such as South Dakota. The reason most lines in Texas are above-ground is that the alternative is very costly — Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent said it’d cost billions of dollars to retrofit the city’s service area — and more difficult to access when breaks in the system occur.
Cost notwithstanding, if a malfunction occurs within a buried line system, it is both more difficult to locate the problem and more burdensome to fix it; unburying and reburying takes more than just a lift truck. The tradeoff, both economical and logistical, is that buried lines are more resilient to a storm like last week’s.
Austin City Councilwoman Mackenzie Kelly called for an audit of and proposed a resolution for the electric utility’s response to the storm and its “vegetation plan” — the protocol for tree-trimming intended to reduce branches disrupting power lines.
“As policymakers, one way we can take action for the community is to investigate Austin Energy’s vegetation management plan and how they handle extreme weather events and locate areas to make improvements to current operations,” she wrote. “Finding places for improvement will increase resiliency for the whole community.”
Kelly had three co-sponsors on council for the resolution, but Councilwoman Leslie Pool objected.
Pool, chair of the council’s Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee, responded, “I appreciate your intention with this [independent financial audit], but I cannot support your item and its approach at this time.”
“As the mayor and I have communicated, we have agenda items for all affected departments to provide us with status and progress reports and to answer questions from the dais. … We do not know what that report will tell us and that is why I do not support your call for audits at this time.”
The council will meet on Thursday, when the fallout of this outage event will surely be discussed.
Monday morning, a special called meeting of the council was set to “evaluate the terms and conditions of [City Manager Spencer Cronk’s] employment with the City of Austin” — added to the agenda by Watson and Councilmembers Alison Alter, Chito Vela, and Vanessa Fuentes.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include mention of the special called meeting to evaluate the city manager’s employment status.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.