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County commissioners questioned CPS Energy and San Antonio Water System leaders Tuesday about power outages and subsequent water outages during last week’s freezing weather, allocating $5 million to a fund that reimburses residents of unincorporated Bexar County and 26 municipalities for pipe repair costs.

CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams attended the Commissioners Court meeting virtually and acknowledged failures in getting residents to understand that outages could happen and at a severe level. But Commissioner Trish DeBerry (Pct. 3) characterized the utilities’ actions as “a colossal lock of leadership.”

DeBerry said her mother, who lives in an assisted living facility, fell and broke her arm because she could not see where she was going after the facility lost power.

DeBerry, a public relations professional, upbraided CPS Energy for a lack of emergency preparedness and not adhering to what she called the tenets of crisis communications response: “Delivering bad news first … and be willing to fall on your sword and accept accountability.

“[Even if] your perception is there was not a failure on CPS to communicate with people or prepare for this, most of my constituents feel like there should have been. Not just, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t know when your power is going to come back on,’ but, ‘We screwed up, there are lessons to be learned, and we’re going to do better.’”

Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1) also pushed Gold-Williams on the issue of customers’ future utility bills. 

“There’s been chatter in the news that over the course of the next 10 years, charges are going to be passed on to customers,” Clay-Flores said. “And so I just want to confirm and ask, is that true? Because that is unacceptable. This is going to be expensive and someone has to pay for it but it shouldn’t be the customers.”

Gold-Williams explained that the high energy bills people around Texas are reporting come from the fact that fuel itself spiked in price. CPS Energy, which is municipally owned, has its rates set by the San Antonio City Council and simply purchases fuel to keep people’s electricity going, she said. The utility company will use “every tool in our toolbox” to ensure customers don’t pay those increased costs, Gold-Williams said.

“We are committed to really reduce that cost as much as possible before it [goes] to the customer,” she said, adding that the utility will seek federal money and other means to avoid passing the full cost on to ratepayers.

SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente told commissioners that the water utility had restored water to 100 percent of Bexar County, though many people may still not have service due to broken pipes. He also expected the boil-water notice in certain places to lift by the end of Tuesday and promised that the winter storm would not result in customers paying higher rates.

“We are calculating what our additional costs are,” Puente said. “We had additional fuel costs just like CPS Energy. We had some infrastructure damage, instrument panels, things like that. We are submitting that bill to [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] for reimbursement.”

The commissioners voted to have DeBerry and Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) serve as coordinators to the newly announced committee formed by Mayor Ron Nirenberg charged with investigating the response of the utilities and of the City of San Antonio to the extreme winter weather event. The committee does not include a county representative, an omission DeBerry and Calvert criticized. The two will stay apprised of its progress and report back to their colleagues.

Calvert stressed that this would not be the last extreme weather event the county faces.

“Weather disasters already are more frequent,” he said. “We’re seeing 100-year incidents happen multiple times a year. … We were not prepared.”

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff stepped in to defend county emergency management officials.

“I think we’ve done a very good job preparing for disasters,” he said. “We’ve been through a number of them. We’ve been successful. [The Office of Emergency Management] did everything they could within their power to do this. I think they’ve done a good job. You may criticize it, but I think they’ve done a good job. What we don’t have control over … is with respect to electrical power and with respect to water.”

Commissioners also voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a county program that gives residents funding to pay for pipe repairs related to the winter storm. The County Plumbing Assistance Program, brought forward by Clay-Flores, allocates $5 million to be distributed to residents who need pipe repairs on a reimbursement basis. The funds are currently dedicated to people living outside of the San Antonio city limits, and to households who fall at or below 80% of the area median income.

Bexar County expects to get that money back from federal dollars, either through FEMA or disaster assistance approved by Congress, County Manager David Smith said.

Though Smith said he understood the concerns raised by DeBerry that people may “double-dip,” getting money from their own insurance and the county, this was the quickest way to ensure people who needed assistance received it.

“People don’t have water today,” Smith said. “[We thought], what is the fastest way we should, keeping in mind this is a public entity, try and get people help?”

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.