After getting $10 million from the city of San Antonio late last year to help thousands of customers pay past-due water bills, San Antonio Water System officials say they’re having a hard time giving the money away.

SAWS has spent just $2.2 million thus far, Vice President of Customer Experience Mary Bailey told SAWS trustees Tuesday, despite an outreach campaign that has included postcards, door hangers, robocalls, emails, community events, newsletter articles and social media posts, she said.

Bailey told trustees the program needs adjustments from the city to ease the process and find more eligible customers.

The number of SAWS customers facing disconnections has dropped dramatically since the height of the pandemic, but remains stubbornly high. In March 2020, about 5,000 SAWS customers were eligible for disconnection. In August of last year, as many as 62,000 customers were at risk.

As of Tuesday, that figure stood at 11,582 eligible customers, Bailey said. Customers may be disconnected after becoming 60 days delinquent on a bill.

Both SAWS and CPS Energy suspended utility disconnections at the beginning of the pandemic, but began seeking repayment from customers last fall.

In November, the San Antonio City Council unanimously approved committing $30 million from American Rescue Act Plan (ARPA) funding to help struggling residents avoid disconnections. Of that, $20 million was earmarked for delinquent customers of CPS Energy, which at the time was facing a loss of roughly $100 million due to unpaid bills. SAWS, which received $10 million, had about $60 million in unpaid debt.

Under federal and city ARPA guidelines, eligible SAWS customers can receive up to $700 toward their past-due balance for charges issued between March 1, 2020 and Sept. 30, 2021. To be eligible, a recipient must be a San Antonio resident, enrolled in a payment or affordability program with SAWS and be able to show proof of hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the utility’s extensive outreach campaign, SAWS is not reaching enough eligible customers, Bailey said. Of the 6,635 applications for funding relief the utility has received so far, almost 60% qualified, resulting in $2.2 million in customer debt reduction — an average of about $561 per customer.

Bailey had several suggestions for ways the city could help ease the process and get the rest of the money to eligible customers.

“What we’re looking for is any avenue possible that can streamline the process to make it easier for customers who really need the assistance to get the assistance,” Bailey said.

One of her proposals called for automatically qualifying certain customers based on where they live by targeting the city’s lowest-income census tracts.

Another was to extend eligibility to outstanding bills through Dec. 31, 2021, rather than Sept. 30, which was a city-issued deadline.

“If we could automatically qualify these accounts and extend the charges, we could apply probably between $5 [million] and $6 million very quickly,” Bailey said. But these or some other adjustments can’t be made, Bailey warned, “it will be very difficult for us to provide much more ARPA assistance to our customers.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, an ex officio member of the SAWS board, seemed receptive.

“I think we need to get aligned,” said Nirenberg. “While we have been disappointed with the results of the assistance programs over the last few years in terms of preventing disconnections and getting people back on onto payment plans, we can continue to adjust our efforts.”

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett is the Science & Utilities reporter for the San Antonio Report.