San Antonio Water System’s board of trustees Tuesday unanimously approved its 2023 fiscal year budget, which will lower water bills for up to 83% of residents.

The approved budget is SAWS largest ever at $978.8 million and includes raises for all SAWS employees, while shrinking most residential customers’ bills. The new rate structure also will reduce bills for 98% of those enrolled in the utility’s Affordability Discount Program.

All residential bills will reflect reduced wastewater charges under the new structure.

The new rate structure makes it so that high water users — both residential and commercial — will pay an increased rate percentage, with the aim of encouraging reduced water use. Pending San Antonio City Council approval, SAWS customers will see these changes on their January bills.

“The recommendations related to SAWS’ affordability program are truly groundbreaking and will have a significant impact on keeping water and sewer services affordable for most customers,” said Mary Bailey, SAWS’ vice president of customer experience.

Commercial ratepayers, however, will see their rates go up slightly under the new rate structure. Most commercial customers or “general class customers” will see a 7% increase in their bill. General class rate blocks are calculated as a percentage of a customer’s prior year average monthly use.

Despite this increase, business representatives from the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and San Antonio Manufacturers Association (SAMA) both spoke in support of the new structure Tuesday.

Patrick Garcia, SAMA chair-elect and president of Division Laundry and Cleaners, said SAWS staff were able to adeptly explain where the increased costs would be coming from for businesses, making it understandable for commercial customers.

“It was explained very well during the [rate advisory committee] meetings, and I have to tell you, that the stakeholders — the majority of them — were in consensus or in line with the recommendations,” Garcia told reporters.

Under the new structure, a resident’s combined water and wastewater bill could be reduced by as much as 8.7%, Bailey said. Fixed charges — such as the meter charge and minimum wastewater charge — for most customers also will decrease by more than 20%, she added.

The new structure changes the way the utility’s assistance program for qualifying lower-income customers is set up, Bailey said, leading to bill reductions for those customers of up to 57%.

For all customers, bill reductions will depend on how much water they use. SAWS officials clarified that this change in rate structure is not the same as a rate increase or decrease; it is simply a change in how SAWS calculates what customers will owe.

“We’re just shifting around who pays what,” Bailey said. “There’s not some sort of built-in rate increase for SAWS to get additional revenue out of this.”

The approved 2023 budget included staff-wide raises that were implemented in September. Those raises are dependent on what each employee earns for the year. Those who make less than $100,000 — 89% of all SAWS employees — got a 10% raise. Those who make more are seeing smaller raises.

Within its $978.8 million budget, $524.7 million is earmarked for capital improvements: $267 million for wastewater upgrades, $215 million for water delivery projects, $25 million for water supply projects and almost $18 million for improvements to the chilled water system.

“This investment is really critical to ensure reliability,” Bailey said. “I think that by making these investments, our customers can feel comfortable that we can provide them with reliable water and sewer services.”

In a separate motion, SAWS board also approved a 12% rate increase for its chilled water commercial customers. That is on top of the 10% increase it approved last year. These customers are located mainly in downtown San Antonio and Port San Antonio. Prior to last year, SAWS had not raised its chilled water rates for downtown customers since 1999, and for Port San Antonio since 2005.

Trustees, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg, applauded Tuesday’s approvals, noting SAWS new rate structure comes at a time when many residents across the city are struggling to pay their utility bills.

“I thought [the rate advisory committee process] was really well done and I was very pleased with the consensus that was reached — particularly around helping folks who are struggling with affordability,” Nirenberg said. “It was the right thing to do, and frankly I’m a little bit surprised its comes forward with such a strong consensus.”

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...