The failure of San Antonio’s city-owned utilities last week demand action, not reassurances

click to enlarge The failure of San Antonio’s city-owned utilities last week demand action, not reassurances
Sanford Nowlin
Editor’s Note: The following is CityScrapes, a column of opinion and analysis.

The snow looked lovely as it was falling. But San Antonio last week was far from the “charming winter resort of the South” our city’s boosters once promoted.

Many thousands were left without power and heat, subject to “rolling blackouts” that mostly seemed to roll off. The water situation was no better, with the San Antonio Water System issuing a boil notice on Wednesday afternoon due to low pressure, and some neighborhoods stuck without running taps for days.

Both SAWS and CPS Energy are publicly owned — they belong to us, the residents of San Antonio — and we need and deserve answers to the most basic questions about how they plan for adverse weather, how management makes decisions and how they communicate with the public. Those same questions were posed by San Antonio city councilmembers last week during a sometimes-tense emergency meeting.

Our elected representatives should demand answers from these city-owned utilities, not “oh, we’ve certainly learned from this” reassurances. At the very least, the city should be able to institute a coherent, coordinated emergency notification system that informs the public, neighborhood by neighborhood, what’s going on with power and water supply during emergencies. And the city and county must develop a comprehensive listing of our most vulnerable citizens, rather than waiting for cries for help. VIA, for example, already knows who is eligible for VIAtrans service, and local social service agencies and churches can identify the vulnerable elderly and homebound.

Some leaders may say our deadly winter weather was a once-in-a-lifetime event. However, it’s clear that these kinds of events — ice storms, catastrophic floods, brutal heat and power outages — are becoming more common in the face of climate change. We must have plans in place to aid those most in need.

I have long argued that San Antonio is a city built on the cheap, with local government historically ignoring basic needs such as flood control and street maintenance in favor of investing in constant outward growth and subsidizing downtown development. In similar fashion, both SAWS and CPS Energy have often appeared far more interested in growing the supply of water and energy to serve the perpetual sprawl machine of the city’s growth.

SAWS, for example, looked far more interested in spending massive amounts on the Vista Ridge pipeline than managing the basics, a phenomenon that led to a $2.6 million fine from the federal EPA over sewage discharges and a commitment to more than $1 billion in sewer improvements in 2013.

Meanwhile, CPS Energy has often seemed far more concerned about burnishing its image by accommodating local politicos and major power users than being fully transparent about its policies.

Our community needs its water and energy utilities to be far more open and responsive. The recent reaction of both entities and their boards when faced with a petition drive to change their board governance neatly illustrates how closed they can be. The utilities went to court in Austin late last year, arguing that the covenants built into their long-term debt effectively precluded any change in governance.

“In addition to keeping bills low for customers, this gives debt investors assurance that their investment with us is sound, and it provides rating agencies the assurance that we are working to protect these investments,” CPS Energy argued.

The utility’s “assurances” for average San Antonians don’t appear to be as substantial.

When it was revealed in late 2009 that CPS Energy’s cost estimates for an expansion of the Bay City nuclear plant were seriously underestimated, then-Mayor Julián Castro demanded the resignation of the utility’s board chair and a serious management overhaul. He got it.

After last week’s outages, we should consider regular reviews of the appointed board members at both SAWS and CPS — along with limited terms — as first steps.

But even if the recent court decisions stopping a change in governance are right, it’s entirely possible to refinance the utilities’ outstanding bonds and restructure their boards. That’s exactly what San Antonio did with the old City Water Board in 1956.

Perhaps now is the time to do that again.

Heywood Sanders is a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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