Rocío Guenther / Rivard Report
San Antonio Water System proposed a 10.5% water rate increase over a two-year period to fund more than $2 billion worth of capital improvement projects primarily aimed at infrastructure repairs.
The public utility proposed a 5.8% increase for 2018 and a subsequent 4.7% increase for 2019. If approved by City Council on Nov. 9, the water rate increase would take effect in January.
"The reason I've asked SAWS to focus on infrastructure is so we don't find ourselves in a situation where we're having to defer maintenance and thereby deferring responsibility for that maintenance to future generations in San Antonio," Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. "We have obligations to our sewer system – this city is 300 years old."
SAWS CEO Robert Puente and his staff gave a presentation to Council Wednesday highlighting the need to replace 50 to 75-year-old pipes in order to ensure successful operations in the long run.
"We have to maintain the system," Puente said. "We have 12,000 miles right under our feet and every single drop is important. We also have a 10-year consent decree from the federal government, which is a mandate to fix our sewer system ... so a lot of the infrastructure changes we have to make are to our sewer system."
The average monthly water bills would go up by about $6 by 2019, Puente explained, but San Antonio "stacks very well" when compared to other major Texas cities like Austin or Corpus Christi, which have the highest water rates in Texas. SAWS, one of the largest utilities in the nation, serves 1.8 million customers in four counties.
"My district is one of the ones that experiences sewage overflows and I see the need for this work," Councilman Ana Sandoval (D7) said. "It's an investment in our infrastructure, which will help our community in the long run."
SAWS Chief Financial Officer Douglas Evanson told Council that SAWS has completed detailed inspections of sewer pipes all over San Antonio. In addition, the utility is investing in cutting-edge technology that will allow them to pinpoint problems in advance, such as air in pipes, corrosion, and leaks.
"No one wants wastewater pipes next to rivers, creeks, and parks," Evanson said. "This work must be done."
Councilmen Greg Brockhouse (D6) and Clayton Perry (D10) said they are not in favor of increasing water rates. Brockhouse suggested Council vote on increases on a yearly basis instead of a two-year package.
"I have concerns about any rate increase whatsoever," Brockhouse said. "I'm sick and tired of money coming out of taxpayers' pockets with no concern to get it back. We need to figure out ways to correct this. Where can we hold the line and reduce this to protect homeowners?"
Perry suggested the City take on a portion of the burden if the Council approves the increase next month.
"Every year we're investing and I'm just not seeing why we need to increase our rates," Perry said. "... We just hit the neighbors with a storm water increase and here we are with additional fees. It's a double whammy for our neighbors here."
"We know this is hard to our community and that's why we're providing SAWS customer assistance programs," Puente said. "In two short years the amount of individuals and families that have signed up for affordability programs has doubled."
Councilmen Roberto Treviño (D1) and Rey Saldana (D4) said it's critical to reach as many people as possible and expanding said programs due to the projected water rate increase. Saldaña added that the infrastructure improvements are long overdue, and that City Council members in years past failed to prioritize it when they instead focused on water attainment.
"Council members really support their water system but they understand they have a responsibility to their constituents and that is to hold our feet to the fire," Puente told reporters after the meeting. "We have to prove to them [why] the water rate increase is [necessary]."
The utility will hold a public briefing on the rate increases on Oct. 24 at 6:30 p.m. at its headquarters, located at 2800 U.S. 281 North. There also will be a live stream on the SAWS Facebook. Another video briefing will take place at 10 a.m. on Nov. 1.