Have SAWS and Vista Ridge Fallen Victim to COVID-19? What Happens When a City Refuses to Manage Its Own Public Utility? Or: “Never let a crisis go to waste.” — Rahm Emanuel
At their April 7 meeting, the San Antonio Water System Board of Trustees gave General Manager Robert Puente unilateral power (through Resolution 33 — see below) to negotiate and execute contracts without approval by, or even advance notice to the Board. The excuse? In the midst of the COVID crisis, Puente needs authority to act in an emergency, such as a water main break. While SAWS Trustee Amy Hardberger correctly pointed out he already has this power, we note he didn’t have the power to execute contracts without prior approval.
Update on May 10: Resolution Number 33 was amended to require review at the next meeting on May 5. It is not reflected in the SAWS minutes which lag two months. It was renewed again at the May 5th SAWS meeting.
Now he does, at least until the May 5th Board meeting.
The “bills” to Vista Ridge’s lenders are probably coming due amidst the COVID-19 international financial crisis.
COVID-19 raises widespread concerns about the ability to perform, and cost of performing, under commercial contracts like Vista Ridge. SAWS and its private partners each have to rely on their legal and financial advisors to carefully navigate these unchartered waters – their respective public-private interests don’t necessarily coincide. Now that the project is built and his private partners need to refinance their construction loans in the midst of a financial pandemic, should we trust Mr. Puente will act solely for the benefit of SAWS ratepayers?
San Antonio is not obligated on those private loans. If Vista Ridge’s “credit-worthiness” is in question due to COVID-19, we pray Puente will not be too quick — this time —- to make concessions or otherwise “give ground” to help salvage the “San Antone Hose” project. Puente should stand firm and get the best deal for his ratepayers, not the expedient deal for his Vista Ridge partners. But how would we ever know, given the secrecy at SAWS that is now given the Board’s outrageous stamp of approval.
We believe City Council and public scrutiny is required before any promises or contract amendments are made to save Vista Ridge.
The April 13 Express News article entitled “Coronavirus has upended local government, moving democracy online and putting it on hold in some cases”, falls short of the point we’re making. Our point is all about Vista Ridge, its timing and Puente’s opportunity to again abuse power. Recall his bloated pay and SAWS’ transparency transgressions. A glaring example is as recent as last month’s request by the Vice-Chair of the Rate Advisory Committee, Joe Yakubik, for rate data in order to do his job. This fell on SAWS deaf ears.
What’s behind SAWS decision to give Puente too much power?
SAWS’ private partners need to re-finance their loans and try to preserve their whopping 18% projected profit margin, in the midst of a pandemic! Yes, you read that right — 18%!
To boot, there are engineering problems on the SAWS end of the pipeline and SAWS has agreed to accept water as early as April 15th. (Our documentation of existing issues with this project – here — was sent to city, county, groundwater and state officials last August.)
SAWS Accountability activists are an array of groups from conservatives to progressives. We have been doing the unthinkable for nearly two years, by working together across a region. When it’s safe to do so, we will hit the streets in San Antonio with a petition drive for SAWS accountability. (Visit SAWSAct.org) We also continue working in the source counties – Burleson, Milam, Bastrop and Lee counties, east of Austin. We want groundwater district and local officials to help avert the creation of a totally manmade natural disaster with Vista Ridge. (See LIV testimony to the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District on April 14th here.)
After years of stonewalling, SAWS must publicly account for the real numbers and financial burdens of this $3.4 billion water boondoggle — the main driver of rate hikes as the San Antonio City Council repeatedly and concertedly refuses to hold the SAWS Board accountable.
What can you do? Your civic duty! Step One: SAN ANTONIO RESIDENTS ONLY: Call or email Mayor Ron Nirenberg and your City Council Member at 210-207-7040. The message is simple – you want Vista Ridge delayed and you want them to step up and provide proper oversight of the project and SAWS. Email them here.Step Two: ALL TEXANS: Reach the Governor to ask him to help put Vista Ridge on hold until there is an independent performance audit of the Project. Ask what options the Governor has when a city fails to oversee its public utility! Governor’s hotline: 512.463.1782 and email him here: www.Gov.Texas.govStep Three: ALL TEXANS: Send this same message to your own State Representative and State Senator. Let them know if you are a SAWS ratepayer. Find your Rep and Senator here. Step Four: Share this message widely, including Texas media.
Have at it, y’all and thank you for paying attention in the midst of the COVID crisis!