SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente.
SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente’s salary increase will be effective Wednesday. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The San Antonio Water System’s top executive will get a raise this year but no bonus compensation, after the utility’s trustees cited the coronavirus pandemic’s financial effect on the community.

At their August meeting Tuesday, the SAWS board of trustees awarded President and CEO Robert Puente a 4 percent raise, bringing his annual base salary from $496,520 to $516,381, effective Aug. 5.

However, unlike previous years, the board did not award Puente a bonus for his work in 2019, though trustees stressed that Puente exceeded the board’s benchmarks for the year and would have been eligible for a $100,000 bonus under ordinary circumstances.

“He didn’t just meet, he exceeded the targets we set for him,” SAWS Chair Heriberto “Berto” Guerra Jr., said at the meeting, adding that “this is no ordinary year.”

“The pandemic is putting unprecedented stress on our community,” Guerra continued. “With so many people out of work, so many people facing uncertain futures, we have decided to adjust Robert’s salary to keep him somewhat competitive with his peers, and we have, as a board, decided not to award any bonus.”

Reached by phone after the meeting, Puente said it’s just “the way things turn out.”

“Nobody predicted this pandemic,” Puente said. “Nobody understood the ramifications and the long-lasting effects of it. It’s the right thing to do at this time for everyone to buckle down, including SAWS, including myself, and be grateful for what is possible.”

The decision to skip a bonus for Puente was welcome news to San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, a SAWS board member in his official capacity who last year said he would oppose any future bonuses paid to the heads of SAWS or CPS Energy, San Antonio’s municipally owned electric and gas utility.

Nirenberg missed the vote Tuesday on Puente’s compensation, saying later that he and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff had been called into a meeting with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott about the coronavirus pandemic.

“SAWS got rid of the bonus this year; that’s progress,” Nirenberg said by phone Tuesday. “We still will need to restructure contracts to ensure that there aren’t bonuses moving forward, as well.”

The bonus discussion is part of the SAWS board’s annual review of Puente, a former state representative and chair of the Texas House’s Natural Resources Committee who has headed the municipally owned utility since 2008.

This year, consultants and the SAWS board graded Puente based on 10 “Tier 1 metrics” relating to regulatory compliance, the utility’s reputation, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, job safety, bond ratings, affordability, sewage overflows, water quality and reliability, and water conservation.

Consultant ScottMadden rated Puente as exceeding his targets for seven of the 10 goals. Puente met his target for the system’s affordability as well as water quality and reliability. He did not meet a target for regulatory compliance.

Puente was also graded on three “key initiatives” – progress on a consent decree with federal regulators to upgrade SAWS’ formerly undersized and leaking sewage system, connecting the Vista Ridge pipeline, and giving regular updates on his progress on his performance metrics. Puente met the consent decree requirement and got 75 percent credit on the other two.

The board also graded Puente on “leadership effectiveness,” with each board member rating Puente on a scale of zero to 15. Puente earned a 14.44 percent average.

With a weighted scoring system, it all added up to a score of 115 percent, which Guerra called an “A++.”

“The results of Robert’s 2019 report card are extraordinary,” Guerra said.

In past years, Puente has turned down extra compensation above his base pay, including in 2018 when he called it a “distraction” as SAWS was making the case for raising its customers’ bills to pay for water and sewer upgrades.

As of last year, Puente was one of the highest, if not the highest-paid leader of a municipal water utility, according to Rivard Report review that compared Puente’s salary to leaders of water utilities serving New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, among other cities.

SAWS Trustee David McGee, who served on the board’s compensation committee along with Assistant Secretary Pat Merritt, said consultant Paradox Compensation Advisors had showed the board that Puente’s compensation was “slightly above the median” when compared to other publicly owned utilities.

Guerra, McGee, Merritt, and Trustee Pat Jasso all voted for Puente’s raise with no bonus. Like Nirenberg, Trustee Amy Hardberger was absent for the vote, saying she had a conflicting meeting early Tuesday afternoon.

Last year, the SAWS board and consultants scored Puente on a series of 28 benchmarks. Asked about the change from one year to the next, McGee said the review of the utility’s leader needs to “remain fluid.”

“We do need to be flexible enough to recognize that if things change, we need to have our CEO head in a different direction,” McGee said.

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