A Divided City Council to Vote on SAWS Rate Increase

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SAWS President & CEO Robert Puente walks in to B Session to present in front of City Council.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente walks into B Session to make a presentation to City Council.

Robert Puente, president and chief executive officer of San Antonio’s water utility, will stand before City Council on Thursday to make the case for two years of rate increases: 5.8% in 2018 and 4.7% in 2019.

The additional revenue, totaling $63.5 million, will be used for water supply, delivery, and wastewater projects that Puente calls “critical” to the city’s water security. San Antonio Water System customers have seen rate increases each year since 2011.

“Nobody likes rate increases – they’re painful. But [citizens] can hopefully come to trust that we’re doing very well with their dollars,” said Puente, who gave the SAWS board an overview Tuesday of necessary service and program expansions the utility has completed with those revenues. Click here to download the presentation.

SAWS’ request has substantial support on City Council, including from Mayor Ron Nirenberg. But at least three council members, Greg Brockhouse (D6), Clayton Perry (D10), and John Courage (D9) say they won’t support the increase, siding with environmentalists who say residents already pay too much for water and challenging compensation for Puente that could exceed $468,194 in 2018.

“I’m voting ‘no’ on it,” Brockhouse told the Rivard Report. “All these increases are compounding, and I don’t know how a citizen is going to approve of this, afford this, and feel like this is the highest use of their dollars.”

San Antonio has some of the lowest water rates in the state compared to other major cities, Puente said, even with the proposed increases. It’s unclear if that will remain true in 2020, when SAWS predicts another 12.4 percent increase in order to start buying water from the Vista Ridge pipeline.

Protestors surround the reception desk at City Hall. Photo by Scott Ball.

In November 2015, protesters surround the reception desk at City Hall in opposition to the Vista Ridge water pipeline project.

Terry Burns, president of the Alamo Sierra Club, said SAWS should abandon Vista Ridge and start focusing on water conservation and catchment projects, but SAWS officials say those strategies are insufficient in face of the area’s expected growth. Burns said the Vista Ridge project only benefits developers and business interests by perpetuating the myth that San Antonio has plenty of water – just like SAWS’ “Waterful” campaign.

Burns also called for the utility to research and adopt a new rate structure that would put less burden on ratepayers.

“We just don’t want wasteful, boondoggle projects that only benefit developers and encourage sprawl,” he told the Rivard Report before the meeting.

Puente said SAWS reviews its rate model every five years and such a review is due in 2018.

“Sprawl is really an issue for City Council – whatever their growth policy is [is] what we’ve adopted,” Puente responded when the Rivard Report asked whether SAWS’ water supply projects promote sprawl. “State law dictates that if you are in our service area, we have to service you.”

The “Waterful” campaign promotes SAWS’ water projects, conservation efforts, and diverse water supply. “We’ve taken great pains in the last 10 years to get additional water sources to this community so that we can grow [economically],” Puente said.

But growth will come with or without Vista Ridge, Puente said, stressing that SAWS wants to ensure that San Antonio doesn’t end up without the water it needs.

About $5.1 million of the revenue from the next two-year rate increase will go towards funding the 142-mile pipeline. A majority of the revenue will be spent on other projects like replacing aging pipes and water delivery.

“The vast majority of the rate increase is going to infrastructure,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report via email after the meeting. “The portion of the rate increase that goes to water supply was previously approved by City Council. The city’s population is expected to grow by as much as a million people by 2040. Our only rational choice is to acquire new water sources. Estimating our future water need is not a gamble that we want to lose.”

Thursday will be Courage’s, Brockhouse’s, and Perry’s first opportunity to vote on a utility rate increase since they joined the Council in June. Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) as well as councilmen Cruz Shaw (D2), and Manny Pelaez (D8) also are new to the Council. Shaw and Pelaez have indicated their support for the increases. Puente said with the new Council, SAWS expected to have to answer more questions about rate increases.

Brockhouse said he has too many lingering questions about SAWS’ budget and priorities to approve yet another rate increase, and it doesn’t have to do with being new to Council.

“Nobody wants to pay more money, but also the lack of trust of government agencies right now is so prevalent at City Hall,” Brockhouse said.

Ideally, Brockhouse said he would like to see the vote delayed further until two questions are answered: What’s the bare minimum rate increase needed to keep up with federally mandated repairs and operations? How many people are getting help paying their bills from SAWS’ various assistance programs?

While he’s fairly certain the rate increase will gain approval Thursday, Brockhouse said he’ll attempt to reduce the 2018 rate and leave 2019 for next year. He also wants to revisit the Vista Ridge project, which was unanimously approved by the previous Council in 2014.

“When we jumped into Vista Ridge, we were in a drought period, so our mindset was different,” Brockhouse said, adding that he doesn’t buy that the city’s anticipated growth justifies the $3.4 billion pipeline project.

“People have been moving here for 300 years,” Brockhouse said.

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) proposes cuts to the budget during B Session.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6)

Not only is SAWS asking for increases, but property taxes and other fees associated with living in the city are going up, Perry said.

“We’ve got a lot of families and neighborhoods out there that are really struggling,” he said. “We need to tighten our belt before we start raising rates and fees.”

Other Council members support the rate increase and Vista Ridge project.

“We’ve got infrastructure from the 1950s and ’60s that – no matter how much we agree with or disagree with Robert Puente’s salary – the laws of physics apply to these pipes, and many are crumbling,” Pelaez said. 

One metric Pelaez said he uses to judge Puente’s performance is SAWS’ top bond rating. “You get what you pay for,” he said.

At Nirenberg’s request, the SAWS board created a task force in September to review Puente’s salary. The mayor voted against Puente’s pay raise for 2018 that will boost his compensation to $468,194 from $445,894. He also could receive a $99,285 bonus.

“The task force is expected to present recommendations to the board by the end of the year,” Nirenberg said.

 

This story was originally published on Dec. 5, 2017.

 Correction: Councilman John Courage (D9) does not support SAWS rate increases.

7 thoughts on “A Divided City Council to Vote on SAWS Rate Increase

  1. I could support rate increases, if SAWS would tell me honestly what they were. (9.7% is not 3.2%, no matter how much you spin it.)

    I could support expansion of the water supplies, if SAWS used statistically relevant data to show current, real reductions in GPCD to justify their conservation claims. (No significant decline in use in the past decade).

    I could support significant investment in wastewater lines to reduce sewer overflows, if SAWS requested appropriate rate increases there instead of water delivery (0.1% vs 15.8% in 2016).

    SAWS works so hard at creating positive spin, that they lose sight of the truth and warp the facts. SAWS is not a bad utility company, but they’re far from being an honest one.

    • It’s easy to be a critic, but I’m glad SAWS is proactive. You sound as if you have data that shows Mr Puente’s presentation to be incorrect. What data do you have? His presentation shows GPCD reduced by half since 1982. Are you saying that entire reduction occurred before 2007? Also it shows reduction of sewer overflows by half since 2010. This seems like good progress to me. Also the photos showing the amount of work that has been done.

      • It’s a late response, but yes, there is data that contradicts SAWS – and it’s SAWS’ own data. Look at the 2012 Water Management Plan. SAWS selects 1982 because it makes the comparison look good. 1982 was a drought year, 22 inches rain, it’s an outlier high-use spike of an anomaly of consumption, use 1981 or 1983 and the comparison changes widely. Read the notes in the 2012 WMP, all GPCD data prior to 2012 was modified due to inaccurate population estimates and bad meter data, but SAWS continues to cite the original 225 GPCD in ’82, even though they know it’s flawed. And yes, per their own data, they had lower GPCD’s in the prior decade – Puente got bonuses for achieving those lower numbers. The current numbers are due to two wet years, 2016 had 42 inches of rain; ergo – GPCD is a lot lower in years when you get 20 inches more rain. Look at the chart and the table on (I think) page 90 of the current WMP. Plot a trend line from ALL the data on that chart, not just the last two wet years. Read, actually read, the SAWS budget on what the cause of the SSOs are (hint: they blame rain) and then read (yes, read the budget not SAWS talking points) about what projects got increased funding to mitigate SSOs (hint: repairing failing sewer laterals that allow water to ingress the system and cause overflows was not one of those projects). Or, you can look on page 37 of the 2017 budget and see the chart of 3 consecutive years of increasing SSOs and read what it says, or do the math yourself, “SSOs have increased from 200 in 2014 up 50% to 300 in 2016, despite years of claimed investment and progress.” So, yeah, I’m pretty confident that I’ve got SAWS’ own data to contradict what they present on slides. You can keep believing the slides if you want to though, SAWS likes it that way.

  2. I do not support SAWS rate increase. As a sole source provider, they act as though they have their clients over a barrel. Any normal company would reinvest into its company, its infrastructure. They have decided instead to line their own pockets in the forms of bonuses. They consistently run short on inspectors during the peak of the season of broken pipes, and water runs like creeks from their breaks for days until someone finally gets out there to inspect them. They write contracts with subcontractors that benefit the contractor over their constituents. They spend money like it grows on trees. When do they start tightening up their belts? When do they start being more transparent?

    And what about the kickback that the city gets for voting yay?

  3. Developers that develop near 1604 and beyond should pay hefty impact fees to SAWS and residents that live in the burbs should pay higher rates given that it costs SAWS high $$ to provide services to sprawling development – the city needs to stop incentivizing inexpensive development at 1604/beyond.

    SAWS rates should also be based on water usage, not a flat fee rate. Most of the water bill is a flat rate with very little applying to actual usage. Fees based on usage are more equitable and allow lower income families to pay less if they use less water.

  4. I applaud Brockhouse’s and Perry’s reservations about voting for rate increases. It would not hurt to dig deeper into SAWS’ storyline. I just don’t trust Puente or his staff.

  5. Once again, greed overrides common sense. Why would you award a bonus to a person that gets paid to do his job? And will result in more than a half million dollar salary. That’s $500,000.00 dollars and one wonders what his staff receives in salary and bonuses.
    The days of reasonable rate increases are gone forever. I am a San Antonio native having lived in the city for more than 75 years. My dad’s water bill at the most was $5.00. Now that you add all the ingenious ways that are utilized to extract more money from the ratepayers, Domestic water service charge, Edwards supply fee, Edwards aquifer authority fee, server service charge, and state imposed TCEQ fee, why not add a fee to cover bout service fees for staff that are already paid to perform their duties.
    The residents are not happy living in San Antonio anymore. Our mayor has let us down!

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