President and CEO of SAWS Robert Puente at the panel discussion “Conversations on Water,” at UTSA. Photo by Scott Ball.
Robert Puente is president and CEO of the San Antonio Water System.

This story has been updated.

In a gesture intended to show leadership at the end of a financially catastrophic time for many, the San Antonio Water System’s top executive agreed to divert his $100,000 bonus to a charity to help pay SAWS customers’ bills.

At its June board meeting Tuesday, the SAWS board awarded CEO Robert Puente the bonus for his work in 2020. Puente met or exceeded 18 standards used to gauge his performance, according to a score sheet provided by SAWS Chair Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison.

“He has met and exceeded all of the initiatives that were presented to him in the 2020 time period,” Jamison said.

But rather than accept the award, Puente agreed to have SAWS contribute the funds to Project Agua, which provides payment assistance for customers facing financial emergencies.

“I think this allows me to show them that I am the leader that they want me to be,” Puente said of SAWS’ 1,700 employees. “When I go into the service centers and talk to the work crews, they know that I’m there for them and I can really support them.

“Any effort that you can do to lessen people’s bad circumstances is what I wanted to do.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who has said he doesn’t support bonuses for San Antonio utility executives, commended Puente’s job steering the utility during the coronavirus pandemic and February winter storm crisis. He said Puente’s donation made him think of the phrase, “We’re all in this together.”

“This action demonstrates that,” the mayor said. “And hopefully we will continue this ethos beyond the time where the pandemic is just a distant memory.” 

Unlike previous years, SAWS board members did not recommend a salary increase for Puente, who has led the utility since 2008. Puente earned a 4% salary increase in August 2020 for his performance in 2019, bringing his base pay to $516,381. 

“I’m not recommending a change to his base compensation at this juncture,” Jamison said in a Friday interview. “But I am maintaining the ability of the board to periodically evaluate the market to make sure that we are in a competitive set.”

A 2019 San Antonio Report review found that Puente was among the highest-paid public water utility executives in the U.S., with total compensation higher than the leaders of public utilities in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, among others. The SAWS board contracts with executive pay consultants to regularly compare Puente’s pay to that of executives at other utilities and local government entities. 

“He is in that expected percentile, and I am not recommending that change,” Jamison said of Puente’s base salary.

The decision over CEO compensation is Jamison’s first since becoming SAWS chair last September. The president and CEO of Bexar County’s mental health authority and a former CPS Energy executive, she described municipally owned utilities such as CPS Energy and SAWS as a “very strange animal” when it comes to comparing CEO pay. 

“Municipally owned utilities are asked to operate like an enterprise that happens to be owned by a government,” she said. “And so you have fewer opportunities to compare apples to apples when you’re looking at other municipally owned utilities. Obviously, San Antonio has both of the largest in the country, both water and power.”

The decision comes as SAWS faces mounting past-due bills after it stopped shutting off customers for nonpayment in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. SAWS employees received performance-based raises in 2020 for their work in 2019; however, the utility suspended such raises for employees in 2021. 

An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison’s role with Bexar County’s mental health authority.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.