SAN ANTONIO -- CPS Energy got approval last year to begin raising your rates after complaining it was strapped for cash. What the city-owned utility failed to mention at the time is that it uses some of your hard earned money to pay for lavish meals and parties.
Lionel Johnson says he recently had problems with his electricity meter that he says caused his bills to skyrocket. The disabled war veteran is on a fixed income.
“Being on a fixed income, if it escalates, I’m in big trouble. So if it goes up $20, that means I have to take away from my food to pay the bill,” Johnson told us.
What Lionel didn't realize until I showed him the receipt is that some of his money is going to pay for things like a $7,000 going away party for a CPS Energy board member.
“I can't see a one-time expense for $7,000 for a party. When you know sometimes I’m eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at night,” complained Johnson.
They certainly weren't eating peanut butter at the going away party for board member Steve Hennigan last February. The bill at Bohanan's included $991 for snapper and $743 for ribeye steaks. And the alcohol was flowing - Gray Goose, Crown, Freemark and champagne - the bar tab was more than $2,000. Also, more than $1,100 was charged to CPS Energy for people who didn't show up after the utility told the restaurant how many they expected to attend, and valet parking was $160. The grand total to the ratepayers came out to $7,074.
But it's not only board members who get a pricey send off. Last February, a vice president retired and his last supper included five other top execs and their wives at Bistro Vatel in Olmos Park. You paid for everything, from steak to duck, and $540 for four bottles of fine wine. Total tab wound up being $1,659.
The stack of receipts I obtained show CPS Energy exec's having retirement and holiday parties and business meetings at swanky eateries all over town. You're not invited, but you're picking up the tab every time.
I asked to sit down with CEO Doyle Beneby to discuss the meals, but was told he was too busy. Instead, the utility set me up to interview their lawyer while a cameraman employed by the public relations department pointed a camera at me.
“Our business meal practices are designed to insure that we promote our business and bring value to our customers. And if they are reasonable expenses, we approve them,” insisted CPS Energy attorney Carolyn Shellman.
I asked the lawyer to defend the expenses to ratepayers who don't think they're reasonable.
“I say that the things that we are doing every day, that I do and my colleagues do, are 100% of the time are making sure we're devoted to doing a job for our neighbors and our community,” explained Shellman.
But what does that have to do with an expensive dinner, I interrupted.
"Well, we're very conscience of how we spend money and do not waste money," replied Shellman.
CPS Energy also doesn't think its employee celebrations are a waste. Including an annual affair for employees who've been at the utility for 25 years, where they get free food, beer and wine. The event this past June 17th cost $43,593.
The total tab for the event over the past four years - $162,000.
The utility also rented out the San Francisco Steak House last October. We were tipped off to the event, but couldn't get in. I was later told that 143 employees and their guests were celebrating the completion of a project. The cost to you was $8,868, and the bill included a $100 charge for a piano player along with $120 for swing girls, who literally swing from the ceiling during the party.
“You're talking about some events that, all told, are fractions of what, pennies of what we spend," said Shellman.
I asked, "But don't ratepayers expect you to watch every one of their pennies?"
"Well, I feel that we're doing that," argued Shellman.
Lionel Johnson has a different opinion.
“I want to use the right words, but sometimes the right words don't come out. I think they're idiots,” said Johnson.
Those are strong words. But many ratepayers are angry over what we uncovered, and they want their money spent more wisely.
“I come back from a war, and I think that I’m helping my country. And then people like CPS take my money, spit in my face, and tell me it's okay. Well, it's not okay,” said Johnson.
CPS Energy tells me they've cut the meal budget by 35% over the past five years. But that certainly didn't stop these events from being paid for.
Now on Tuesday night, I’ll sit down with the Chairman of the CPS Energy Board to see what, if anything, he's going to do about it.