Expanding the city’s existing oversight of San Antonio’s electric and water utilities, the new Municipal Utilities committee met for the first time Tuesday to discuss the broad challenges CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System face in the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri and the coronavirus pandemic. 

The first meeting featured a briefing on how the utilities have already started responding to the winter storm by setting up internal investigations into what went wrong during the February freeze.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg created the committee following the election of new council members and the conclusion of work done by the Emergency Preparedness Committee he formed following the widespread power and water outages that occurred during February’s storm. Chaired by Councilman John Courage (D9), the committee includes council members Mario Bravo (D1), Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), and Ana Sandoval (D7). Executives of the utilities and the city were also present for the virtual meeting to answer questions. 

“What we were hoping to achieve through this committee is collaboration and information sharing, so that we have an understanding of how the utilities are operating,” Courage said. “And if there are challenges they face, how can the council become informed so that we can be supportive of our utilities and meeting those challenges?”

Courage and Bravo asked to see all existing reports detailing improvements recommended to CPS Energy and SAWS including internal and third-party reports.

Recalling that city officials faced difficulties getting timely information from SAWS and CPS Energy during the winter storm, Havrda said she would like to see a presentation from the utilities about an “updated communication plan with the council.”

“I’d like to hear how our utilities have improved this condition and the new plan for communication,” she said.

Following a presentation given by city Chief Financial Officer Ben Gorzell on the utilities resumption of service disconnections on Oct. 1, Courage emphasized that he finds the cutting off of utilities for any San Antonians “worrisome.”

SAWS hasn’t seen much of a change in the number of delinquent accounts or in the number of customers seeking assistance in resolving their past-due accounts, said Mary Bailey, SAWS vice president of customer experience. 

“We’re not really getting the response that we’d have liked as quickly,” Bailey said. “I think people are hearing ‘October’ and thinking they have more time.”

It’s because of this that SAWS announced a new program earlier this month for SAWS customers on the affordability discount program to get on an automatic payment plan that would help extend their service for six more months, Bailey said. 

Meanwhile, CPS Energy saw an uptick in customers getting their accounts current as soon as the utility started talking about resuming disconnections earlier this year, said Rudy Garza, chief customer and stakeholder engagement officer at CPS Energy. It has also seen about 2,000 more customers enroll to be on an assistance program since spring, Garza said.

The next Municipal Utilities committee meeting is scheduled for Sept. 27. 

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.