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What you need to know about the Public Service Board, one of El Paso’s most important institutions

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There are bodies of water and governmental bodies, and the El Paso Public Service Board is an intersection of both.

The seven-member board, composed of six members appointed by the City Council plus the mayor, governs El Paso Water. The water utility has more than 850 employees and a budget of $508.3 million this year. The PSB oversees the utility’s contracts, budgets and projects, and also determines if the utility will raise fees.

The Public Service board also holds large tracts of public land and influences development.

In El Paso County alone, the utility owns 21,128 acres, according to El Paso Water spokesperson Denise Parra. Much of the land is vacant in the city’s Northeast and Northwestern sections, and developers claimed the board was limiting El Paso’s growth by not selling land. The $6.9 million sale of 116 acres of land to homebuilders Northtowne Village Joint Venture in 2019 was the first since before 2007.

The Public Service Board has full control of the public lands under its control, using the sales to fund water and sewage projects. The utility also acquires land for the irrigation rights by buying the land, getting access to Rio Grande water.

Outside of El Paso County, El Paso Water owns 142,258 acres. Much of that includes land in Dell City, where the utility plans to import water, adding to the water supply in coming years. The utility also owns 4,313 acres in New Mexico.

This year has been challenging for the utility, with record monsoon rainfall causing dangerous and destructive flooding to both projects and property, a river strained by drought and a sewage spill from unprecedented breaks in West El Paso. 

The utility is in the process of developing its budget for the 2022-2023 fiscal year, which needs to be approved by the PSB.

The board voted in each of the past six years, including 2021, to raise the water and sewer rates for residential and commercial customers. The board also added a fee increase to pay for additional stormwater projects, which had remained steady for the last two years. The utility also passes on a franchise fee, enacted by the city, entirely to its customers. That money pays for the wear and tear on the roads (right of way) that the utility uses.

That franchise fee goes to the city’s general fund, alongside the other streams of revenue such as property and sales taxes. The City Council voted in 2019 to increase the fee by $3 million for a total of $6.5 million. That increase meant typical residential customers paid on average 60 cents more, to about $1.33. Utility staff have said they prefer incremental increases to large payouts from customers.

The board also rates the performance of the utility’s CEO. The board found earlier this year that CEO John Balliew’s performance was above average, meriting a 9% increase for an annual salary of $322,312.

The members serve staggered four-year terms, with a limit of two consecutive terms. The board expanded from five to seven members in 2010.

The City Council committee that handles the appointments requires the board candidates to manage one of the following: “financial management, general business management, engineering, environmental/health, consumer or citizen advocacy and communications, public administration or education.”

In 1995, the Texas Legislature designated the Public Service Board as the regional water and wastewater planner for El Paso County.

After disastrous floods in 2006, the City Council gave the board oversight of stormwater projects in 2008.

Their meetings are open to the public and the board meets on the second Wednesday of the month at 8 a.m.

Members

Kristina Mena is the chair of the board. The City Council first appointed her in 2015 and she was elected the chair in 2020 during her second term. Mena is an environmental microbiologist and researches the spread of disease from contaminated water. She’s currently the regional dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health El Paso campus. Mena is also on the Board of Managers that governs the University Medical Center of El Paso.

Ivonne Santiago is vice chair of the board. Santiago teaches in the civil engineering department at the University of Texas at El Paso, and specializes in technologies to treat surface, ground and reclaimed water. She was first appointed in 2016.

Christopher Antcliff is the board’s secretary-treasurer. He is an attorney and mediator. He’s a former district judge and justice for the Texas 8th District Court of Appeals. Antcliff was first appointed in 2014.

Bryan Morris owns RBM Engineering Inc., which provides and designs for the construction industry. He has more than three decades in the business. Morris was appointed in 2019.

Charlie Intebi is a co-founder of Nova Safety Products, a small business that sells safety supplies. He also has partnerships with real estate firms Max investments and IN Properties. Intebi was appointed in 2021. He also serves on the boards of Keep El Paso Beautiful and the Kern Place Neighborhood Association.

Lisa Saenz is the chief financial officer at WestStar Bank. She also is the board chair of the nonprofit Paso Del Norte Health Foundation. Saenz was appointed in 2021.

El Paso’s mayor, currently Oscar Leeser, serves as a member of the PSB. Leeser is in his second term, having previously served from 2013-2017. He is the owner of the largest Hispanic-owned Hyundai car dealership in the nation.

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Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New Mexican. She can be reached at dprokop@elpasomatters.org.

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