Following City Council vote, expect water rates to increase over next 2 years

SAWS proposal was hotly contested

By Michelle Ganley - Online Editor

SAN ANTONIO - After discussing the proposal for about five hours on Thursday, the City Council approved the San Antonio Water System’s rate increases for 2018 and 2019.

The vote was 8-3. The decision means that residents’ water bills will go up by 5.8 percent in 2018 and 4.7 percent in 2019.

The rate hike is needed to pay for infrastructure improvements, especially to wastewater pipes, that are mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency, SAWS officials said.

The money also will fund the Vista Ridge Pipeline, which is being built to pump a new water supply into San Antonio.

Although SAWS is increasing rates, Water System officials said the company is also expanding its affordability program, to help customers who struggle to pay their bills.

Still, the effort won’t be enough to please some council members.

“And then we’re going to turn around and come off the affordability discounts,” said Councilman Greg Brockhouse, of District 6. “They’re going to be the same people now as they are 10 years from now, because those rates are climbing to unaffordability levels that are ridiculous.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg weighed in, as well.

“This is not taking,” he said. “When we adjust rates, it’s not taking from the public and putting it somewhere else. This is ensuring that we invest, together, in the water infrastructure that we own.”

Council members from Districts 6, 9 and 10 voted against the measure.

Here's what some had to say about the increase.

District 1 Councilman Roberto Trevino:

"Many residents want to know what they can expect SAWS to accomplish with the increase in revenue. The additional funds the rate change will generate will be used (toward) upgrading our sewer system and replacing old water supply lines. These improvements are critical to District 1 as it is the center of the city and contains much of the city's oldest infrastructure. Furthermore, an agreement (consent decree) between SAWS and the federal government dictates that, by law, SAWS must make these sewer improvements. 

"While rate increases are often difficult to justify, it is imperative that our aging sewer lines do not burst, especially near our waterways. The vote today provides stability by allowing SAWS to better budget and plan to address our aging and water infrastructure needs. The vote also allows ratepayers to lock in their water rate over the next several years -- avoiding serious cost escalation issues. With a million future San Antonians on the horizon, our city cannot afford to neglect the most basic, yet essential, infrastructure for our current residents. 

"My colleagues and I have asked SAWS to look at their operations and budget to find efficiencies to streamline services and lessen the financial burden on ratepayers. I would like SAWS to continue its industry-leading efforts to reach out to vulnerable communities in need of assistance -- specifically: people with disabilities, surviving spouses of first responders, our veteran communities, widows and widowers of veterans. Also, I have requested, and SAWS has assured me, that they will remove all late fees for the disabled on the Affordability Discount Program. Although I know this affects a relatively small number of residential ratepayers, these individuals have already exhibited a need for assistance.

"I will continue to work with SAWS on a commitment to providing better affordability programs to minimize the financial impact on seniors and other segments of our underserved community."

District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran:

“Needless to say, this has been a difficult decision to make, for many reasons. In District 3, decades of neglect are responsible for sewer overflows, drainage issues, water line breaks and even flooding. I ultimately voted in favor of this rate adjustment because it’s the only way to finally solve some of these issues once and for all.

"I will be working closely with SAWS to make sure we clearly understand the burden these rate increases put on our residents and to get help to everyone who needs it, without exception. We have growing economic segregation and disparity in San Antonio and our water policy, fees and rates need to address those inequities.

"For everyone disappointed, upset and feeling like this isn’t fair: I agree, and I share your frustration. I’ve even asked Robert Puente, president and CEO of SAWS, to transfer his bonus to affordability programs. Unfortunately, the bill for generations of mismanagement and inequity has come due. Though this rate adjustment is difficult to support, District 3 residents should know that these funds are finally going to address needs in our neighborhoods and community."

District 6 City Councilman Greg Brockhouse:

"Unfortunately, the SAWS two-year rate increase passed the City Council today by an 8-3 vote. I motioned to have a one-year rate increase only and was joined by council members Courage and Perry. That motion failed. For years, these rate increases have been rubber-stamped and fly through City Council votes. While the rate increases passed, we put SAWS on notice that the City Council is watching and scrutinizing every ratepayer dollar they spend. I will continue to fight for the lowest rates possible and will always vote with the residents in mind. Additionally, several of my colleagues and I felt strongly the SAWS CEO should not receive a bonus or pay increase during a rate increase year. While we couldn't vote on that today, the City Council must work with the appointed members of the SAWS Board to revisit the governance structure of SAWS, to ensure we have the final say on pay and bonuses for all utility companies. This is ratepayer money. We must be humble and fiscally responsible with what we have before asking for more from residents."

District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez:

"I understand that no one likes paying more. Neither do I, but we all like what the rates pay for: dependable, clean water. The SAWS rate increase is needed now because of the lack of infrastructure spending over the last 50 years. Overall, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that U.S. cities will require $3.6 trillion in basic infrastructure investments over the next 20 years. However, this only covers updates and maintenance of existing infrastructure. Over a generation, infrastructure all over the country has deteriorated as other projects have taken priority. 

"A rate increase is needed to comply with a consent decree from the Environmental Protection Agency because it was deferred for so long. Consequently, we've had artificially low rates, which we've all enjoyed, but now we're having to pay for it. Today's vote is a proactive measure to maintain our existing infrastructure and ensure the mayor and City Council in 2050 aren't in the same position we are now."

District 10 City Councilman Clayton Perry:

"I am disappointed that City Council voted to approve the SAWS rate increase today. Originally, SAWS was prepared to impose a 4.9 percent rate increase, later asked for up to a 5.3 percent rate increase and then finalized their request for a 5.8 percent increase. Ratepayers are consistently hit with increases in annual fees from governmental entities, and it is adding up. We keep hearing sentiments that these additional costs only average $3 to $5 a month, but collectively, those costs are having a detrimental effect on our neighbors. In the last 10 years, residents have seen increases of their stormwater fees, solid waste fees, parks (and) environmental fees, CPS rates and in their property taxes. Our neighbors need relief from the constant barrage of governmental rate and fee increases, and we owe it to them to look inward and be better fiscal stewards of their hard-earned dollars.

"I am fully aware that SAWS is eager to meet the standards under the EPA consent decree. However, I voted no on this rate increase, because I don't agree that SAWS has proven the need to burden ratepayers with additional increases on their water bill before reducing their internal costs first. Previous rate increases have yielded budget surpluses for SAWS, and I remain opposed to setting the groundwork for another budget surplus through an even higher than projected rate increase." 

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