SAWS Fee Increase Debated At City Hall

The public had a chance to comment on the San Antonio Water System’s request to increase ‘impact fees’ by 116 percent during City Council's Thursday morning  meeting. The one-time charge covers the cost of new development to water and wastewater systems and, according to SAWS, prevents existing ratepayers from subsidizing new customers, ensures growth “pays for itself” and keeps the water system’s rates among the lowest in Texas.

The impact fee, required to be de discussed every five years, would add more than $2,000 to a single-family home purchase and around $150,000 to costs for an apartment complex building. For instance, without the increase prospective homebuyers in central San Antonio would pay $4,227, with the increase that charge goes up to $6,102. The average impact fee proposed, the highest amount allotted by state law, would be among the highest in the U.S. and in Texas.

Critics of the plan say tacking on the fees may discourage homeownership and stop new development altogether—and that includes affordable housing units. District 5’s Shirley Gonzales expressed concerns over the potential burden on affordable housing projects, “You say here growth ‘pays for itself’, but, in fact, it does not pay for itself, the whole community is paying for this growth,” she said.

So what’s driving the cost? (As Mayor Julián Castro asked, “Anyone would look at that 116 percent figure and say what’s going on here? So, what’s your explanation?”)

SAWS pointed to capital costs associated with portions of the new brackish desalination pipeline that collects water from the Wilcox Aquifer. The plan is meant to reduce dependency on water generation from the Edwards Aquifer, where SAWS has historically derived more than 90 percent of its water.

The Capital Improvements Advisory Committee, community members appointed by Council to review the rates, met over the past 18 months and say the charge doesn't have to be that high. The 11-member committee recommended the fee should be $1,590 (a 23 percent increase) instead of the $2,796 proposed. Group representatives said they calculated the lower rate by omitting new water projects coming online.

After hearing concerns from the development community who have projects now underway, Castro has proposed delaying the increase for another six months or until Jan. 1 so those developers can get the current rate.

But just like we saw when CPS Energy similarly requested a fee increase amid boosting top-level employee salaries, the SAWS fee increase comes as CEO Robert Puente's salary gets a sizable salary hike—Puente’s income will go up 15 percent, from $325,187 to $373,966 and he’ll receive a “one-time performance award” of $72,832.86, the Express-News reported on Monday.

District 9 council member Joe Krier brought up criticism of the increased salary from citizens, saying constituents recently expressed, “a lot of unhappiness,” about the inequity. Puente said he plans to go back to the SAWS board and “emphasize” those concerns.

Council plans to vote on the fee increase on May 29. The fee increase would take effect in June.

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