City Council on Thursday voted 8-3 on water rate increases for the next two years: 5.8 percent in 2018 and 4.7 percent in 2019.

Along with other increased fees not controlled by the San Antonio Water System, the average customer will pay $3.45 more in 2018 and another $2.94 in 2019 for a combined $6.39 average increase.

“This is an infrastructure budget … a back-to-basics budget,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. About half of the increases are tied to a mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce sewer spills, he added.

The revenue generated will help pay for necessary water supply, delivery, and wastewater projects, officials and most Council members said.

SAWS CEO Robert Puente said the public utility is increasing its outreach and awareness initiatives associated with its affordability programs. Staff will be sending targeted mail-outs and hosting affordability fairs and senior events to get the word out about available assistance to lower bills, he added. SAWS has identified 19 zip codes – “pockets of poverty” – to focus on. Its budget includes a $2 million increase in assistance for a total of $5.7 million.

But the influx of people enrolling in these programs and the increased budget should not be celebrated, Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) said. “That means that more and more people in our city can’t afford utilities.”

Puente said increased enrollment is not evidence that fewer people can afford water; rather SAWS’ outreach has effectively informed low-income customers that these programs exist.

Some said SAWS is asking for more than it needs and should focus on conservation and efficiency instead of expensive water supply projects like the Vista Ridge pipeline. Water rates are expected to increase by 12.4 percent in 2020 to start paying for water from the 142-mile pipeline from Burleson County.

Councilmen Brockhouse, Clayton Perry (D10), and John Courage (D9) voted against the rate increase.

“I have both conservatives and liberals asking me to vote against the increase,” Courage said, referring to his council colleagues and activists in the audience. “I’m very concerned … because I’m afraid we may overburden our ratepayers.”

Brockhouse said he wanted to know what a bare minimum increase would be, and that City Council shouldn’t make these decisions until a clearer picture has been painted of what is necessary and what is possibly superfluous.

Some citizens suggested voting on yearly rate increases separately. Brockhouse’s motion to do so was rejected by the rest of council, save for Courage and Perry.

SAWS is constantly starting, stopping, and in the middle of large infrastructure projects, Puente said, many of which require at least two years of planned funding.

Perry proposed that SAWS “forgo” its payment to the City as a sign of solidarity with ratepayers. Brockhouse and Courage voted with him.

Some raised questions about Puente’s compensation, which could exceed $468,194 in 2018. A task force is looking into performance metrics and salary, and Nirenberg expects a report by the end of the year.

Other line items on water bills include “pass-through” fees from the Edwards Aquifer Authority and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which are based on what SAWS pays those entities. The Storm Water Utility Fee, which varies depending on the pipe size and amount of impervious cover a property has, was increased slightly by City Council this year with the fiscal year 2018 budget.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org