The number of San Antonio Water System customers eligible for disconnection has surpassed 64,000 as the utility’s Oct. 1 deadline for disconnection draws closer, SAWS officials said during a board meeting Tuesday. 

As of July 20, those were residential accounts that were more than 60 days past due, Vice President of Customer Experience Mary Bailey said during the trustees’ August meeting. The amount owed by those accounts is more than $40.8 million, or an average of about $630 per account, Bailey said. 

The numbers are “certainly disconcerting,” said SAWS Chair Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison. The other concerning factor is that SAWS has not seen many customers voluntarily contact the utility to create a payment plan since announcing the resumption of disconnections, Jamison added.

SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente listens to a speaker during a meeting in 2019. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“The first goal is to not turn anybody’s water off,” SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente told the San Antonio Report. “But there are some circumstances where we just have to move forward, because otherwise the people that are paying their bill are subsidizing those that aren’t paying their bill, and the only vehicle we have to get people to pay their bill is to essentially cut them off.”

More than 3,800 SAWS accounts for commercial, industrial, apartment, and municipal customers also are more than 60 days past due. These customers can either set up a payment plan of three, six, or nine months online or call SAWS to create a customized plan, she said.

SAWS officials encourage customers with delinquent accounts to contact them as soon as possible so disconnections can be avoided. Customers who enter into a payment plan to resolve delinquent accounts will not be disconnected, Bailey said. 

“Staff is concerned that the longer the customers wait to reach out to us, the harder it will be to get through to us as we approach that October deadline,” Bailey said. “We are providing multiple options for delinquent customers to avoid disconnection.”

This month, delinquent customers will get a bill that shows their outstanding balance and states that the balance must be paid, either in full or over time through a payment plan, Bailey said. SAWS will not charge customers retroactive late fees for existing balances.

Customers who don’t set up a payment plan will receive “the appropriate notices that are required by ordinance” prior to disconnection, Bailey said.

SAWS has already begun outreach to these customers with postcards and door hangers encouraging them to enter into a payment plan, Bailey said.

About 9,700 of the past-due residential accounts are enrolled in SAWS’ affordability discount program (ADP), which is offered to SAWS customers who meet the federal income assistance guidelines, giving them a discount on their monthly bill depending on their income.

As of Monday, about 15% of ADP customers and 10% other past-due customers had enrolled in payment plans, she said.

“Since these customers are already income-challenged, being able to satisfy the entire balance, or even being able to pay some portion of the balance, will be nearly impossible for many customers,” Bailey said. “These customers will likely need to obtain assistance in order to prevent service disconnections.”

While third-party assistance programs from the city and county are available to SAWS customers, applying and qualifying for them takes time, Bailey said. “However, we do want to make sure that we get these customers to begin paying their charges,” she said.

SAWS staff has proposed giving ADP customers six months to get on a payment plan before they are disconnected, Bailey said. Other customers will need to contact SAWS as soon as possible to avoid disconnection if they are in need of assistance, Bailey said. 

SAWS staff is also working to create an automatic payment plan program that can help ensure that customers who are behind on payments are able to keep their water service connected. Only non-ADP customers who are 60 days past due or more and owe less than $2,000 as of Aug. 1 will be eligible for this program. Qualifying customers would automatically be enrolled in a payment plan if they have not signed up for one by mid-September, she said. 

“We’re at the point now where we have to make a decision for the entire system,” Jamison said. “I would like to appeal to our ratepayers, our customers — please come in so that you can be a part of the solution and not force us to place you on a plan that may or may not be to your liking.”

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...