The San Antonio Water System’s recently approved COVID relief plan drastically reduced the number of residents facing disconnection, SAWS officials told a city council committee Wednesday.

The plan, which automatically enrolls delinquent customers in a payment plan and created a $41.2 million reserve that will help pay off customer debts, has reduced the number of customers at risk of having their water shut off to roughly 16,000, SAWS Vice President of Customer Experience Mary Bailey said. That’s down from about 62,000 at the beginning of August.

SAWS will begin residential disconnections Oct. 19, Bailey said, and expects that number to decrease even further before then.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval, a member of the city council’s new Municipal Utilities Committee, applauded SAWS’ effort and suggested CPS Energy officials “emulate SAWS’ program in terms of automatic enrollment for certain customers.”

The committee, formed in the wake of the winter storm that left many residents without power and water for as long as a week, resulting in several deaths, heard from both publicly-owned utilities Wednesday about their plans to disconnect customers, some of whom have not paid their bills in over a year.

On Friday, CPS Energy will begin disconnecting the first 7,000 or so of roughly 76,000 delinquent customers who are “not on assistance programs, have made no payment whatsoever, and haven’t responded to our outreach,” Rudy Garza, CPS Energy’s chief customer engagement officer, told the committee.

When council members asked Garza why CPS Energy hadn’t automatically enrolled customers into a payment plan like SAWS did, Garza said CPS Energy doesn’t “have any intention of forcing our customers into plans, because we want them to be proactive in connecting with us.”

He told the committee CPS Energy is urging residents who are not on a payment plan to reach out as soon as possible to get on one; customers on payment plans will not be disconnected.

“Just because we’re not doing something exactly like SAWS doesn’t mean we’re doing nothing,” Garza said. “We’re doing everything we can sir to connect with those who need it.”

That has included mail inserts, phone calls, assistance events, and helping customers connect to city, county, state, and federal aid, he said. Thus far CPS Energy has connected customers with $38 million in aid since last June.

The utility is also working with the city to seek American Rescue Plan Act funding to help lower its existing debts, Garza said.

But the actual process of disconnection may be what it takes to get some customers to pay or make a payment plan with the utility, if its experience with large commercial customers is any indication.

Disconnections for that group of customers started Sept. 1, Garza said. When 40 such customers faced disconnection, 30 settled their bills straight away. Another seven had gone out of business, leaving only three to go through the disconnection process, Garza said.

“We always knew that there’s a group of customers that weren’t going to get engaged with us until they got that disconnect notice,” Garza said. “[Seeing] those numbers coming down immediately … is really just proof in the pudding that customers will respond.”

After the first group of roughly 7,000 customers, the next group of disconnections won’t begin until Nov. 1, said CPS Energy spokeswoman Nora Castro.

Following an assurance from Councilman John Courage that the committee wasn’t trying to tell CPS Energy how to do its job, Garza said he would take their input back to the utility’s board of trustees.

“We’re going to do everything we can to get ahold of [these delinquent customers] to try to get them on a payment plan,” Garza said.

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Lindsey Carnett

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