The San Antonio Water System’s board of trustees formally approved a COVID-19 relief plan Tuesday to help SAWS customers who have fallen behind on their water bill payments due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The utility’s Oct. 1 deadline for resuming disconnections is just over two weeks away, and more than 47,000 accounts, representing more than $53 million, are delinquent, SAWS Vice President of Customer Experience Mary Bailey told the board Tuesday. Yet as of Aug. 30, less than 12% of SAWS customers who are more than 60 days past due have entered into a payment plan.

SAWS’ COVID-19 relief plan aims to “minimize service disruptions” and to “encourage delinquent customers to resume payments for service” while also addressing late balances, Bailey said. The board unanimously approved the plan; trustee Ed Belmares was not present.

“We also want to make sure that we can respond flexibly when and if federal disaster recovery funds become available, particularly for low-income customers,” Bailey said. “And we want to maximize the collection of delinquent balances at the lowest possible cost.”

To be eligible for assistance, a customer must have been 60 days or more past due as of Aug. 1, Bailey said. She emphasized that customers who weren’t eligible for disconnection on Aug. 1 can’t stop paying now in an effort to become eligible for assistance.

Under the plan, delinquent customers have been divided into four categories: residential customers enrolled in SAWS’ affordability discount program (ADP), other residential customers owing less than $2,000, other residential customers owing $2,000 or more, and non-residential customers. SAWS’ COVID-19 relief plan aids customers in each category with different strategies.

The utility’s most vulnerable customers are those already enrolled in its ADP, Bailey said, which gives SAWS customers who meet the federal income assistance guidelines a sliding scale discount on their monthly bill depending on income.

For ADP customers who have not already entered into a payment arrangement, a six-month hold will be placed on all outstanding account balances starting Wednesday, Bailey said. About 7,500 ADP customers are delinquent, she said. During this time, customers who pay their monthly bill in full won’t accrue additional debt, and will avoid disconnection. The hold, which could be extended, will give ADP customers an opportunity to identify payment assistant options, including federal disaster recovery funds, she said.

The almost 34,000 residential customers who owe less than $2,000 and are not already enrolled in a payment plan as of Wednesday will be automatically put on a 48-month payment plan, Bailey said. These customers must pay their bill on time and in full plus a percentage toward the arrears for 18 months. Once they’ve paid off 37.5% of the past due amount, the remaining account balance will be written off.

SAWS has been working to reach delinquent account holders through email, phone calls, and even door-knocking to alert them of these changes, Bailey said.

“The payment threshold could be made by the customer obtaining third-party assistance, so we will be encouraging these customers to pursue assistance that will be available from the state, county, or the city,” Bailey said.

The roughly 6,200 who are either residential customers who owe more than $2,000 or delinquent nonresidential customers, will have to enter into a tailored payment plan to avoid disconnection, Bailey said. They may also qualify for third-party assistance.

The plan will also address customers with large outstanding balances related to leaks that may have gone unrepaired during the pandemic, Bailey said, by increasing the reimbursement funds or “leak adjustments” beyond what normally would have been offered, said Bailey.

To be eligible for a leak adjustment, the customer’s leak must have occurred between Oct. 1, 2019 and June 30, 2021, and they will need to provide proof the leak has been repaired. The reimbursement will be given as bill credit, Bailey said.

As the pandemic progressed and delinquencies increased, SAWS established a reserve for uncollectible accounts in the amount of $41.2 million as of Aug. 31, Bailey said. This reserve was primarily established through charges against sales revenues between March 2020 and August 2020, she said. SAWS anticipates this reserve, combined with federal disaster recovery funds, will be enough to “absorb the financial impact of this relief plan.”

“The pandemic has been extraordinary and unprecedented in our community,” Bailey said. “It has had a dramatic effect on our customer delinquencies.”

SAWS Chair Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison called the COVID-19 relief plan “reasonable” and applauded SAWS staff for finding avenues to mitigate the financial impact of the pandemic on the utility.

Ex officio SAWS trustee Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the plan is a “clear demonstration of a resident-centric approach to a very difficult problem,” and joined Jamison in her praise for the utility.

“It’s very easy to look at these numbers and get a little bit overwhelmed with the debt that’s incurred,” Nirenberg said. “But you’ve all been working on this for a long time and I want to compliment you on that.”

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Lindsey Carnett

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