Analysis: San Antonio's CPS Energy may need money, but even more, it needs accountability

click to enlarge CPS Energy's leadership says it desperately needs to expand its employee ranks. - Twitter / CPS Energy
Twitter / CPS Energy
CPS Energy's leadership says it desperately needs to expand its employee ranks.
San Antonio's troubled municipally owned utility, CPS Energy, is expected to seek city council approval for a 3.85% rate increase Thursday.

The ask comes after the utility’s trustees voted 5-0 on Monday to approve the change, which would hike customers’ monthly bills by an average of $5. It would be the first such boost for CPS since 2014.

The proposed increase would bring in $73 million in additional annual revenue. CPS officials say they need that money to refill shrinking employee ranks, upgrade aging software and add to electrical infrastructure. There's little reason to doubt the utility needs more funds as it struggles to keep up with San Antonio's rapid growth.

Even so, a cash shortage isn't the only problem plaguing embattled CPS. Nor, one could argue, is it the most significant one. Council's approval should come with conditions meant to make the utility more accountable to the people it serves. 

CPS is requesting its hike after a disastrous performance during last February's catastrophic winter freeze. While much of the blame for widespread power outages falls on Texas' deregulated power grid, CPS officials failed to communicate with city officials and their customers, making a dire and deadly situation even worse.

In the fallout of that costly debacle, San Antonians learned that three members of CPS's legal team resigned after the utility filed a flurry of lawsuits against natural gas suppliers — and that some of those attorneys lodged internal complaints against CEO Paula-Gold Williams, who's since resigned.

What's more, a KSAT TV investigation into ethics complaints against Chief Operating Officer Fred Bonewell, the utility's No. 2 official, unveiled alleged racial insensitivity and a documented pattern of using his company-issued purchasing card for pricy meals. Bonewell has since departed as well.

That same KSAT report, citing CPS documents, suggested that Gold-Williams also spent freely with her company card and that some internal complaints against higher-ups yielded no serious response from the organization.

It may be a foregone conclusion that Mayor Ron Nirenberg and council will approve CPS's requested rate increase. But it would be a grave disservice to those elected officials' constituents if they fail to require the utility to open itself to unprecedented scrutiny in return.

First-term District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo has repeatedly called for an independent study of CPS, which he said should look under the hood of its corporate culture, its finances, its management structure and more.

Bravo last week told KSAT he's been meeting with the utility's interim CEO, Rudy Garza, and trustees about that course of action.

“So, my vote is based on what kind of commitments — firm commitments, detailed commitments — I can get out of CPS Energy, and it looks like we’re getting close," Bravo told the station. "But there’s ... more discussions to have.”

San Antonians should hope Bravo is ready to stand by that commitment. And that other members of council show some spine and demand a new — and likely uncomfortable — accountability from an organization that's managed to avoid it for decades.

The status quo at CPS is broken. It likely has been for quite some time. A bigger revenue stream won't fix that. Nor will stern and sincere lecturing from the dais by Nirenberg or any other member of council. The time for "harrumphing" is over.

To begin curing what ails CPS, we need to understand just how deep rooted its problems are and look for solutions that may involve rebuilding it entirely. That can't be done without a thorough probe that holds the utility accountable to the people it allegedly serves.

Editor's Note: The article has since been corrected to reflect the number of attorneys who resigned from CPS Energy in the wake of its lawsuits against natural-gas providers and the date of the utility's last rate increase.

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