San Antonio City Council members debating how to spend an extra $75 million windfall from the city’s CPS Energy revenue want to direct the money toward residents who need it the most — not big businesses.

A plan proposed by city staff last week would give CPS Energy customers a credit on their October bill in the amount of 13.3% of their July bill. For residential customers with an average bill of $230, the credit would be about $31.

For roughly 85,500 small commercial customers with July bills averaging $850, the city estimated they would receive a credit of $113. Large commercial customers averaging July bills of $750,000, meanwhile, would receive a total of $4 million in credit, according to city estimates.

Taken to the council for debate Tuesday, members said they want to explore options that would focus the city’s surplus on residential customers, in particular those who have struggled to pay their utility bills in the past.

“My challenge with the rebate is … it’s really not targeted to people who need that assistance the most,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg. “I know there’s a lot of folks out there who feel the same way about this.”

The council was presented last week with details of the city’s surplus from CPS Energy revenue and city staff’s recommendation to put $45 million toward customer credits. Another $5 million would be set aside to help people who are behind on their bills, while the remaining $25 million would go toward other projects.

While members arrived Tuesday with a host of proposals to spend the money on projects ranging from climate mitigation to street repairs to domestic violence assistance, many acknowledged it was unlikely the city could now backtrack on a rebate plan residents have already heard about and like.

“I’ve heard loud and clear from my residents that they want that money back,” said Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), who had originally proposed spending the money on streets.

“My residents are just a few short dollars away sometimes from becoming homeless, or from losing the ability to pay for utilities, so I really take that into consideration,” she added.

Deputy Chief Financial Officer Troy Elliott opened Tuesday’s work session with a presentation focusing specifically on the potential credits for both residential and commercial customers.

Troy Elliott, San Antonio's deputy chief financial officer, presents to City Council members the details of a $75 million budget surplus from CPS Energy on Tuesday.
Troy Elliott, San Antonio’s deputy chief financial officer, presents to City Council the details of a $75 million budget surplus from CPS Energy on Tuesday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Residential customers would account for $26 million of the $45 million in rebates, across roughly 834,000 customers. About 87,600 commercial customers would account for the rest of the $45 million, for bills ranging an average of $850 to $750,000.

“As a city where we prioritize living wages and equity and things like that,” said Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3), “I see at least 40 businesses getting over $100,000.”

City staff is skeptical about the idea of picking and choosing who gets the money.

“The boundaries that we have to work with in terms of a regulatory framework [require] that all ratepayers have to be treated equally, in uniform,” Elliott said of the city’s proposal.

Faced with the raw numbers of what big businesses would receive, however, council members were clear they wanted the money to go elsewhere.

Councilman John Courage (D9) said he wants the city to distribute the rebate in cash to residential CPS Energy customers who live in San Antonio, as opposed to a bill credit. In doing so, he suggested the city could avoid the legal requirements that prevent CPS Energy from offering different rates to various types of customers.

“It might cost us $1 million dollars to send out checks to 570,000 people, but still that money goes to people who live in the city who need it,” said Courage.

Nirenberg asked CPS Energy interim President and CEO Rudy Garza whether customers could voluntarily forgo their rebate to help other customers who are behind on their bills.

“It’s going to take some work but my team is committed to figuring it out,” Garza said.

Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) proposed using the money to clear the debt of customers in the utility’s Critical Care program, for those who rely on electrically operated medical equipment. CPS Energy estimates that’s a total of about $6.8 million.

CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.