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CPS Energy And SAWS CEOs Discuss 2021 Rates, Citizen Petitions During Facebook Live Town Hall

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District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez hosted the town hall with CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold Williams and SAWS CEO Robert Puente via Facebook on Wednesday night

The leaders of CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System discussed petitions and the possibility of rate increases over the next year during a Wednesday night town hall on Facebook hosted by District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez.

Both SAWS and CPS Energy have suspended service disconnections because the pandemic impacted the livelihoods of many of its customers and its own revenue. CPS Energy could lose about $20 million in 2020 as it endures the coronavirus pandemic. That could double in 2021.

Entire industries reduced their operations and water use during the outbreak. SAWS officials have estimated about 33,000 residential and business customers owed about $22 million in water bill payments.

CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold Williams said if a rate increase takes place, it could happen in the fall of 2021.

“We don’t do it arbitrarily but ultimately just to run the businesses, to make sure people have reliable power, resilient power, [and] that we’re making those changes on the environmental front," she said, "and still making sure that we can invest in new systems that make us more efficient. ...”

CPS Energy last asked for a rate increase in 2013. The last SAWS rate increase took place in 2019.

In the same town hall, SAWS CEO Robert Puente said he did not expect the water utility to ask for a rate increase in 2021.

“We are happy to report that this coming year, 2021, we will not be asking for a rate increase,” he said.

Puente noted the recent creation of a 10-year $100 million debt plan by the City of San Antonio to continue the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program would not raise rates either.

That debt would be paid for from part of the revenue that SAWS sends to the city.

“What the city has decided to do is the 4% we do send to the city,” he explained. “They’re going to use from that percentage. They’re going to fund that program.”

SAWS and CPS Energy are city owned utilities, and a portion of their revenue goes into the city’s general operations fund.

The town hall came a week after the SAWS board approved a $909 million budget that included a freeze on water rates and employee raises.

Casting a shadow over the discussions were recent petitions targeting the CPS and SAWS operations.

The CPS Energy petition — named Recall CPS — calls for making the utility a city department rather than a separate city-owned entity. It also calls for a more rapid closure of CPS Energy’s last remaining coal fired power plant, which is slated to close in the next decade.

Representatives of the SAWS Accountability Act petition said their goal was to not dismantle the utility but call for audits on large projects — such as the Vista Ridge Pipeline — and limit salaries of the SAWS president and CEO.

The petitions need 20,000 signatures to be placed on the ballot next May.

Puente and Gold Williams — as well as their respective agencies — are barred from taking a formal stance on any political petitions or ballot initiatives. However, both lightly commented about their thoughts on the initiatives.

“Some of the efforts that they have — I think — if I was allowed to address them and talk to them I would be able to tell them that. … It’s much more complicated than just wanting the Vista Ridge project to go away, than just wanting lower rates,” Puente said.

Gold Williams portrayed the Recall CPS petition organizers as wanting to save the world but not willing to negotiate.

“We want to save the world with them, and we believe San Antonio is already blazing a trail to get to the right goals. We believe that we can get to net-zero carbon emissions and carbon neutrality probably better than most other communities,” she said. “We’re fighting over the velocity of change but we’ve reached a point where we have people who don’t want to keep working on it, they want to fight, and that’s distracting.”

In late October, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce asked residents to not sign the petitions.

Chamber President Richard Perez said the chamber and business community worked together to fund ads and political signs to stand up for the utilities.

“SAWS and CPS Energy have been important economic development tools for the city of San Antonio and Bexar County that has literally helped us bring thousands of good paying jobs," Perez said, "so we need to protect that asset.”

Brian Kirkpatrick contributed to this report.