In a perfect world, none of the tens of thousands of CPS Energy ratepayers and San Antonio Water System customers experiencing serious financial difficulties will suffer disconnection for nonpayment of their bills in the coming months.
Energy and water are municipal services, but as we have witnessed in extreme weather events that regularly visit South Texas, they also are human rights.
And in a perfect world, the thousands of residential, industrial, and commercial customers who can afford to pay will not game the system. Customers who can afford to pay should pay, especially with the utilities offering extended payment plans.
Even those who cannot pay or who can only pay token sums should contact the utilities, the first step to avoiding a cutoff in service come September and October. Families and individuals who have not paid their bills for 60 days or more should respond to the current outreach efforts being made by CPS Energy and SAWS teams.
San Antonio, with the highest percentage of people living in poverty among all major U.S. cities, according to the U.S. Census, is reaching an inflection point in the continuing pandemic. While many of us are enjoying the social and economic recovery underway, the working poor in our city and county face increasingly difficult circumstances as the pandemic endures.
The good news is San Antonio and Bexar County have significant resources in the way of federal funds flowing here via the American Rescue Plan Act being deployed on a number of fronts: job training, housing and rent assistance, food support, public health services, and utility payment assistance.
Efforts by the utilities to work with delinquent customers should be buttressed by paying down the arrears with funds from the federal relief program. Such a program would help CPS Energy and SAWS clean up their respective balance sheets, shed uncollectible debt, and resume better collections.
Perhaps incentive programs can be created that match individual customer payments with relief fund payments for low-income and unemployed individuals. The average SAWS unpaid account, for example, is about $630. More people will enroll in a repayment program if they knew the city and utility were meeting them halfway.
I’d also like to see both CPS Energy and SAWS invite their customers to contribute a few dollars each month to offset utility costs for people living below the poverty line. Our family would readily contribute to such a fund, and those who see such a program in a negative light as some sort of social welfare program encouraging continuing delinquency can ignore it.
Right now only about 9,700 eligible customers who qualify have enrolled in SAWS’ affordability discount program (ADP), which is offered to customers who meet federal income assistance guidelines and includes a discount on monthly bills, depending on income.
Bexar County has received $194 million in federal coronavirus relief funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and expects to receive the second portion in 2022, rounding out the total to $388 million in “state and local fiscal recovery funds.” As with the first federal coronavirus relief package in 2020, the county’s funding also applies to the 16 suburban cities and unincorporated Bexar County.
San Antonio received around $164 million in May, the first half of the total $326 million it expects to receive for “fiscal recovery” from the same $1.9 trillion stimulus package signed by President Joe Biden in March.
Another $1 billion is flowing into the county’s school districts from federal relief funds allocated to Texas.
Every taxpayer-supported budget, of course, was hammered by the pandemic and economic shutdown. San Antonio, for example, “had a $100 million hole blown through our budget in 2020,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg reminded me in a Friday conversation. So the relief funds are hardly a windfall.
The mayor also told me there are laws on the books prohibiting forgiveness of public debt, which makes sense from an anti-corruption perspective. But creative ways can and should be found to identify people in genuine need in the case of delinquent utility payments.
More than 150,000 of CPS Energy’s residential customers are delinquent, totaling more than $92 million. About 70,000 of them qualify for disconnections, which have been suspended during the pandemic but will be resumed later this year. More than 64,000 of SAWS’ residential customers are delinquent, totaling more than $40 million. They will face disconnection in October if they do nothing.
“The simplest way to sign up for help is to call 311, and a navigator will help callers access the various relief programs that are needed,” Nirenberg said. “Residents who need assistance should contact the utility. We are reaching out to folks, but we need folks to reach back out to customer relief assistance folks. We are sending out the message that no one should be disconnected, but we do need people to get enrolled in the proper assistance program.”
San Antonio does not want to be a city where most of us enjoy reliable energy and water, while the less fortunate must make do without because an extended pandemic drove them deeper into poverty. Of course, we can contain the pandemic if the unvaccinated will overcome their distrust of modern medicine and science, or their embrace of disinformation spread by fringe media, and, as the British say, get the jab.
CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.