San Antonio City Council shut down a proposal to return the city’s unexpected windfall from CPS Energy to customers on their October bills. The move would have given the average residential customer a credit of roughly $31, or 13% of their July bill applied to a bill in the coming months.
The idea was proposed by city staff earlier this month during the unveiling of the 2023 fiscal year budget, as a way to help customers who have been hit by high energy bills over the unusually hot summer.
Though it has the support of Mayor Ron Nirenberg, the plan was met with immediate resistance from members of the council who wanted the money to be used for other projects, such as helping residents insulate their homes from extreme temperatures.
“It’s dead,” Councilman Mario Bravo (D1) said Tuesday of the rebate plan. “It was originally supposed to be voted on [Thursday]. They don’t have the votes.”
Because the city owns the utility company, CPS Energy returns part of its revenue to the city’s budget. This year that contributing revenue totaled $75 million over the city’s 2022 budget due to an extremely hot summer.
The budget presented by City Manager Erik Walsh called for $25 million of that extra revenue to be used to support existing city programs, while recommending $45 million be returned to CPS Energy customers as bill credits. Another $5 million would be set aside to help low-income families pay their bills.
Walsh had given the council a deadline of Sept. 1 to approve the plan so that CPS Energy would have time to facilitate the rebate on October bills. He said Tuesday the proposal would be removed from an upcoming council agenda.
Council members said they now hope to pivot to plans that use the money that was supposed to go toward rebates for projects they hope will mitigate the effects of extreme weather and prevent high energy bills in the future.
A plan Bravo has proposed would use $9 million to convert local buildings to community centers where people can come for heat or air conditioning if they lose power. It would spend $13 million on a tree planting campaign and another $13 million helping low-income customers insulate their homes.
“Even if there’s not a consensus on what exactly we want, I think it’s a problem that we haven’t been allowed to have that conversation because it’s still all about the rebate,” Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) said in an interview after Tuesday’s budget work session.
An updated proposal from the city presented Tuesday would move a larger share of money, $7.5 million, to the CPS Energy’s Residential Energy Assistance Program (REAP) — something council members liked.
They also seemed to find agreement on a plan proposed by Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) that would create a dedicated fund for energy efficiency projects. That plan, if paired with a long-term revenue source, would allow the city to seek matching funds from the federal government through the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Sandoval was absent from Tuesday’s session, but her idea received praise from Nirenberg. Manny Pelaez (D8) and Phyllis Viagran (D3) also were absent from the work session.
CPS Energy is already engaged in helping low-income customers make their homes more energy-efficient, an effort some council members hope to build on.
Walsh said after the meeting that he believed both the increased REAP funding and Sandoval’s energy efficiency fund would be included in a future proposal, though city staff was looking at alternative funding sources for the latter.
That would still leave roughly $42.5 million that needs to be allocated before City Council can approve its budget, which goes into effect Oct. 1, the start of the city’s fiscal year. If council members can’t unite on a plan before then, the rebate idea could be back on the table.
“It’s very clear there’s not a unified plan on what to do with this $50 million,” said Nirenberg, who has been a proponent of the rebates as the safest way to legally spend the money.
Though open to other proposals, he questioned the city’s ability to staff and run a weatherization assistance program and cautioned against the optics of redirecting the money to other projects.
“We don’t want to set a precedent that will always be looking to spend [extra money],” said Nirenberg, particularly money that was “collected as a result of weather emergencies.”
Council members John Courage (D9), Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) and McKee-Rodriguez each said Tuesday that while they had once considered the rebate a potentially viable plan, feedback from their constituents indicated that people wanted to see the money spent on something more impactful.
“I’ve heard multiple meetings where there’s more than six people who say the rebate is not the way they would prefer to go, but somehow that’s still the main target,” McKee-Rodriguez said.
Cabello Havrda said the city had set some residents up for disappointment by rolling out the rebate proposal before City Council had a chance to weigh in and discuss the idea with constituents.
“It was difficult to go against it, because that’s what people are already expecting,” she said of the rebate.
“I’m hearing from people who say that $30 would be helpful in their homes,” she added. “But the vast majority of people are saying that they want us to so something more meaningful.”
CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.