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SAWS Impact Fee Debated At Council Amid Proposed CEO Salary Raise

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So why are new homeowners expected to carry the monetary burden? (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 groundwater desalination project that collects water from the Wilcox Aquifer. The plan, which necessitates new infrastructure, 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 as-yet untapped resource is expected to meet the city’s water needs for the next 50 years.

As SAWS spokesperson Greg Flores told the Current, “We are now embarking on much more expensive water supply projects than we have in the past.”

But a council-selected group argues the increase doesn’t need to be so high. The Capital Improvements Advisory Committee, community members appointed by Council to review the rates, met over the past 18 months and recommended the fee should be a substantially lower $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. Farrimond and others find the citizen-led proposed rate easier to swallow and more likely to sustain affordable housing.

In another attempt to mitigate the burden, Castro proposed delaying the increase for six months or until January 1 so those developers now undergoing projects can get the current rate. Flores said the water system intends to charge the higher rate, however, they will consider Castro’s phase-in proposal.

“It’s an idea we’ve been asked to explore, so instead of happening in June, it could happen a little bit further down the road,” he said.

Already seeing pushback from the development community, the exceptionally high increase comes at the same time SAWS has decided to increase Puente’s salary by 15 percent, as first reported by the Express-News and confirmed by the water system. The CEO’s income will rise from $325,187 to $373,966 and he’ll receive a “one-time performance award” of $72,832. The move is reminiscent of CPS’ request to increase utility rates while granting its CEO and top-level executives sizable bonus pay, criticized by economic equality advocates, as the Current previously reported. While the news of Puente’s salary increase debuted just last week, it’s already generating flak from citizens—during a recent council meeting Krier said he found himself getting “chewed up” by constituents, who expressed, “a lot of unhappiness,” about the inequity.

SAWS’ Flores says Puente’s raise is a reflection of his performance and cites decreases in sewer spills, the rise in new water supplies, efficiencies that cut $10 million from the previous budget and continued low overall water bill rates for residents as examples.

But while asking for the highest impact fee rate possible under Texas law, you have to wonder why the SAWS board would simultaneously increase its CEO’s salary, at the least, in respect to public image—and especially following the uproar CPS faced from citizens just a few months back.

Flores declined to comment on the decision’s timing, only saying the choice comes “at the board’s discretion and at their pace,” and is in no way associated with the fee increase.

Council plans to vote on the water supply impact fee increase on May 29; if approved without the requested six-month delay, it would take effect in June 9.

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