The El Paso Public Service Board killed a plan on Wednesday that would make new developments pay a greater share of the cost of additional water infrastructure needed to sustain growth.

“I think we need to do due diligence and hearing from the public from different sectors of our community and the community more broadly so that they have enough information and we have enough information to make an informed decision,” said board member Kristina Mena, regional dean of the University of Texas Health Science Center at HoustonSchool of Public Health’s El Paso campus. 

The PSB voted 5-1 to delete the proposed fee from Wednesday’s agenda. The board also instructed staff to examine El Paso’s water fee structure and do more public outreach.

Board member Charlie Intebbi cast the sole dissenting vote. Bryan Morris, who had supported the new fee proposal in prior meetings, was absent.

The money raised from the proposed “sustainable infrastructure surcharge” would be used to build new water and wastewater facilities to serve growth areas in the Far West, Far East and Northeast parts of El Paso. The surcharge – $59 a month for most new water customers in the designated areas – would have been a major shift from the long-standing policy of having all  water customers share in the costs of new growth.

The surcharge would only impact houses or businesses built in three specific areas on El Paso’s outskirts. It would not apply to “infill” development in parts of the city that are already built out.

New homes built in these areas would be subject to a $59 monthly water and wastewater surcharge in a proposal being considered by the El Paso Public Service Board. (Map courtesy of El Paso Water)

El Paso Water CEO John Balliew said continuation of current policy would result in larger rate increases for existing water customers.

“So that means that your core 199,000 customers who’ve been paying into the system for many, many years and have paid for all of the facilities that they need, would be continuing to pay, albeit a small amount of money, to support the growth coming in from the outside,” he told the board.

Mena said El Pasoans share in the benefits of growth.

“I love El Paso, it’s a beautiful community. And in the 22 years I’ve lived here, as we’re growing, there’s more amenities, there’s more services. We’re attracting experts in the field for all the things that we need in terms of education and health care, and we all benefit from that,” she said.

The population of the city of El Paso has not grown over the past decade, although new developments have spread the population over a wider area in that time.

Officials have said adding the surcharge would save the average existing customer $549 in future rate increases over the next 10 years. By contrast, the owner of a new home built this year in the affected areas would pay an additional $7,000 in surcharge fees in that period.

The surcharge was projected to raise almost $20 million in new annual revenue for water infrastructure after 10 years. 

That projection is based on 3,000 additional homes built in El Paso each year, which is significantly higher than recent construction rates, according to Ray Adauto, the vice president of the El Paso Association of Builders. 

Developers and other business interests opposed the adoption of the new surcharge, saying it would add to challenges caused by high inflation and interest rates. The only public comment at the three PSB meetings where the surcharge was discussed – mostly from representatives of development and business interests – criticized the fee proposal.

The PSB is made up of El Paso’s mayor, currently Oscar Leeser, and six other members appointed by the City Council. The board is largely independent and makes decisions on water, wastewater and stormwater systems vital to El Paso. The PSB also sets rates for those services.

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.