San Antonio Water System’s board of trustees approved its largest-ever annual budget Tuesday, but it doesn’t include a residential or commercial rate increase.
The $940.7 million budget includes roughly $10.3 million in assistance for customers with overdue bills in 2022, with most of that administered through the utility’s affordability discount programs. SAWS customers could also benefit from another $10 million in assistance from federal coronavirus relief funding through the city. The utility is owed roughly $52 million from delinquent accounts.
“We continue to focus on how we continue into how we can help our most vulnerable customers through our affiliate assistance programs,” said Cecilia Velasquez, SAWS controller and senior director of financial service.
The utility will spend $582.8 million to improve its infrastructure, making it the second-largest capital improvement program in SAWS’ history. SAWS’ largest capital improvement program was $609 million as part of its 2020 budget. A major driver for 2022’s capital program is SAWS’ smart meter program.
The only impact residential customers might see on their monthly bills in 2022 are from two pass-through fees currently totaling roughly $2.72 per month, Velasquez said.
One fee is a monthly fixed charge to recover the fees SAWS pays the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for regulatory oversight of water and sewer systems. The current monthly rate is 21 cents for water services, and 6 cents for wastewater services, Velasquez said.
The other fee recovers the aquifer management fee that SAWS pays to the Edwards Aquifer Authority, she said. This fee is roughly $2.45 per month for customers.
“We will come back to the board in December if any changes to these pass-through fees are needed,” Velasquez said. “Other than that, there will definitely be no changes to our [residential] billing for 2022.”
Roughly $471.3 million of the approved budget is slotted for the utility’s operations and maintenance, and another $227.3 million will pay the utility’s debt service and expenses. About $32.2 million will go to the City of San Antonio’s general fund, which is used to pay for public safety and infrastructure.
The budget also accounts for SAWS’ decision to raise its employees’ minimum wage from $15.25 an hour to $16 an hour. This will affect staff members such as meter readers, custodians, and utility operators, Velasquez said.
The board-approved budget will next need to be approved by the San Antonio City Council; it is included on the council’s Dec. 2 consent agenda. If approved, the budget will go into effect Jan. 1, 2022.
Rates will increase 10% rate for “chilled water” commercial customers, which are located mainly in downtown San Antonio and Port San Antonio. SAWS has not raised chilled water rates for downtown customers since November 1999, and for Port San Antonio since May 2005. It is the utility’s only organizational component that is not financially self-sufficient.
SAWS has owned and operated district cooling infrastructure in downtown San Antonio since 1968. These facilities provide cold water to large downtown buildings such as the Alamodome, Henry B. González Convention Center, and La Villita, Velasquez told the San Antonio Report.
During the board meeting Tuesday, SAWS also received a briefing on what its staff has done and is doing to prepare for major emergency events such as winter storms. In February, Winter Storm Uri resulted in millions of Texans losing power and/or water during the five-day-long freeze.
Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Steve Clouse said SAWS has completed 14 of the 67 recommendations made to it by the city’s Committee on Emergency Preparedness, has 41 in progress, and has not yet started on another 11.
Many of the completed tasks have to do with improving communication during an emergency, Clouse said. That includes establishing a singular point of contact for communicating outages and status updates, which will be the vice president of communications and external affairs, and performing joint utility exercises with CPS Energy and the city, Clouse said.
SAWS is also working to address requirements made by the legislature such as submitting a critical load report and critical preparedness report to state agencies and to address concerns brought up by the Public Utility Commission of Texas, Clouse said.
Asked by the board’s Chair Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison if SAWS would be ready for another emergency situation, Clouse said he believes it would be.
“We’ve done everything that we can reasonably do,” Clouse said. “We’re making sure that we’ve got every base covered. I do not see a scenario where if Uri repeated itself, it will impact our water system like it did. We will do much better than we did last time.”