in Houston, Texas
Austin Energy’s employee parties, spending on food examined
Thursday, May 24, 2012, 04:15PM CST
By Lee Ann O'Neal

Austin Energy’s finances have been under something like a 500-watt floodlight since the utility provider proposed a rate hike late last year.

Today the Austin Bulldog adds to the scrutiny with a look at spending on food and employee parties.

The Bulldog piece is packed with detail and is frankly making us hungry. We’ll have some of the cheesecake, please.

From the Bulldog:

According to city documents, Austin Energy rented a private room at Dave and Busters on September 24, 2010, for an end-of-the-year celebration. About 70 employees in the Energy Efficiency Services Division ate fajitas; drank coffee, tea and soda; and played arcade games. The event cost $2,479, according to city documents.

Just three days earlier, 101 employees in the Finance and Corporate Services Department visited the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum to look at exhibits and watch Hubble 3D at the IMAX. The appreciation event cost $1,864.

The city paid Pappas Catering $2,018 to serve 60 guests at an Austin Energy employee recognition luncheon on September 21, 2011. The menu featured jumbo cold-boiled shrimp, Louisiana shrimp gumbo, grilled mahi-mahi and 16-ounce rib-eye steaks. For dessert, guests ate New York style cheesecake and bourbon chocolate pecan bars.

A spokesman explained the expenses by saying that if the employees feel appreciated, “it comes back to customers in better service.”

Eating well extends to the top office, with General Manager Larry Weis and a city lobbyist dining on strip steak and and stone crab at Truluck’s in November 2010.

KXAN picked up on the food theme in a report last week, finding the utility has spent more than $600,000 since late 2009 on food and entertainment expenses including going-away parties for interns and $52,000 for gift cards.

“Your money has been spent at just about every restaurant in Central Texas,” KXAN’s Chris Willis reports.

Austin City Council, flummoxed into inaction on the proposed rate increase prior to the May 12 election, is knuckling down. The average residential bill would increase $8 a month under a plan favored by some on the council, Councilman Bill Spelman told the Austin American-Statesman.

The Statesman has done its own probing of Austin Energy's coffers, finding spending on a climate protection plan and twinkly lights at Christmas, as well as the African American Men and Boys Conference and Hispanic Futures Conference. In all, the newspaper in January found “an estimated $150 million to $180 million in annual spending unrelated to generating or selling electricity.”

That’s more than cheesecake.

Contact Lee Ann O’Neal at 713-980-9777 or

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Photo of cheesecake by flickr user Patrick Haney, used via a Creative Commons license.
Thursday, 05/24/2012 - 05:41PM

As bad as this is, at least Austinites can find out about this government waste because they own their own utility. God only knows what those executives at the Wall Street owned utilities in the deregulated parts of the state do with their revenues.

Will McLeod
Monday, 05/28/2012 - 06:56PM

CPS in San Antonio also does that, we are taking about catered gourmet food. I know, I was there when I ran for Mayor, I attended CPS meet and greet the candidates. While there Lasanga was delicious, I asked myself how much are the taxpayers footing the bill for this? I hope it was deducted from my filing fee,. and not on the consumers back.

Still have their folder about CPS Energy. SAWS brought in gourmet spaghetti. Run for office, and you will know what is going on with spending, for sure.

Thursday, 09/27/2012 - 01:20PM

Almost all organizations have employee recognition events that are far more costly than this. Celebrating and rewarding employees has been proven to increase customer service levels, discretionary effort and reduce employee turn over. They will save more than they spend on these programs. Now bigwigs just treating themselves to gourmet food without clients or Employees on the taxpayer is different.

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