During a forum hosted by the hospitality industry, the four primary mayoral candidates began to take stronger stances against one another’s viewpoints. Mayor Ivy Taylor, former Rep. Mike Villarreal, and former Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, all dispensed and received direct and indirect criticism from each other. While Tommy Adkisson dished out several comments about inept leadership at the City and state levels, the former County Commissioner was spared from any direct criticisms.
The most blatant jab was administered by Villarreal, who said Mayor Taylor would support an increase of property taxes.
“Unlike one of my opponents, Council – er, currently interim Mayor Ivy Taylor, I will never support a proposal that increases property taxes to fund the City’s general budget,” he said, receiving a smattering of applause from a typically quiet, sold-out crowd of more than 450.
“I’ll just clarify, as your Mayor and also previously as the District 2 Councilmember, that I have not advocated or promoted any property tax rate increase,” Taylor responded, emphasizing the absence of the word “interim.”
Someone in the audience let out a sustained “hiss,” though it was unclear to whom it was directed.
Villarreal could not cite the exact instance he was referring to offhand after the forum, but a member of his staff sent the Rivard Report a link to a Policy Goal Setting Session Report from May 27, 2014 – when Taylor was the representative for District 2. Though a different funding strategy was approved, Taylor did indeed express support a proposed option that would have raised the property tax by one cent.
Click here to download the report (see page 7).
But that preliminary discussion on the option of filling the funding gap with a property tax ended there. Property taxes have not been raised since at least 1992.
Villarreal repeatedly mentioned the need for fair police and firefighter union contracts – an issue that Taylor has taken heat from (as any mayor would). Talks between the police and City negotiators have been on and off for more than a year, but seem to be coming closer to a resolution this week.
The forum, which took place during a luncheon at the Marriott Plaza, was moderated by Scott Joslove, president and CEO of the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association. Candidates were unanimously agreeable to almost all pro-industry policies suggested by Joslove.
State Standardization of Food Handlers Certification
Each city has their own process for certifying that workers are trained in handling food. It’s annoying and expensive for employees to go through that process, Joslove said. Instead, many states have opted to use state and/or national certification.
All candidates would support such standardization.
Privatizing the Convention and Visitors Bureau
“Of the five largest cities in Texas, only one of them does not have a CVB that operates as a nonprofit,” Joslove said. “San Antonio currently operates (with) the Convention and Visitors Bureau as a department of the City.”
He lauded the CVB’s director and department, but said that San Antonio could take it to the “next level” by having an independent CVB that partners with the City.
All candidates would form a kind of task force to hash out what the best way to manage the CVB in the future – which will likely be independent from the City. Van de Putte said she would take that analysis it even further to figure out a way to incorporate economic development strategies beyond the tourism industry.
“It’s not just good enough to come visit here, we need them to invest here as well,” she said. “In other communities (and industries) there is a much stronger linkage (to economic development).”
The Gems of Downtown Tourism: Alamo Plaza and La Villita
Joslove asked the candidates to give a brief overview about their visions to ensure access and enhancement to the Alamo, Alamo Plaza, and La Villita.
Villarreal: The current process of opening up the spaces to new vendors is good, he said, but it could be better. “I would like us to learn something from the Pearl and really curate that space – not just do sort of a free-for-all, anybody apply – but rather really think though, who do we want there?” He would rather see the City make competitive offers to business they want to see in the shops.
Taylor: The current process is designed to boost the profile of La Villita, and in that process is an evaluation period to check on how it’s doing. “Possibly in maybe we need to have an outside entity to actually manage it because, hey, frankly (for) the City (managing retail) is not our core business.” For Alamo Plaza, respecting the history is key, she said.
Adkisson: “I think the way some of our locals have been treated, La villita business people, has been most unfortunate,” he said. “They need to be shown respect and dignity and communication and inclusion. And I don’t think that has been happening … (City staff) handled (new leasing process) in a very arrogant and detached manner.” The Alamo deserves the best and the brightest to enhance the site – without closing downtown streets.
Van de Putte: She agreed that La Villita’s tenants need to be included in the conversation. “Bold vision: Yes. We have no lack of vision in this community, we have a lack of leadership.” She also pointed out that she approved the 2011 legislation that passed ownership of the Alamo complex from the Daughters of the Republic of Texas to the General Land Office.
How would you address panhandling and other criminal issues that are a deterrent to making this area as vibrant as it could be?
All candidates agreed that mental health care is a key component to get people off the streets.
“The largest mental health care provider in Bexar County is the Bexar County Jail,” Adkisson said. “75% recidivism rate in jail … we have to continue working on reentry and make sure we’re guiding people on the right path.
Van de Putte agreed and added that a strong police presence – hiring more police officers – is the key. “It is not only annoying, but it is a very, very threatening experience to people.”
Villarreal shares those policy recommendations, but he added that “what is holding us back from adding more police officers is the current contract that we currently have … we need a new contract” that balances public safety with City affordability.
Taylor pointed to a recently-launched City initiative to end veteran homelessness. “We are looking to get some of those chronic panhandlers off the street through creative techniques,” she said.
Protecting the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT)
Projects funded by the HOT funds are supposed to be directly linked to attracting more visitors to San Antonio. And the hospitality industry wants to be able to give input on which projects get priority/funding, to ensure we get the “most bang for our buck,” Joslove said.
All candidates pledged to protect those HOT dollars from being spirited away on projects that are merely indirectly connected to tourism – and that the industry should be involved, in some degree, in how its spent.
Villarreal added that a quantifiable return on investment (ROI) standard should be created in order to measure projects and investments on a level playing field.
Van de Putte agreed, but said the issue is “a budget process, it’s not a task force.”
“We all want to go to Heaven; nobody wants to die. We all want great services but nobody wants to pay property tax,” Joslove said, eliciting chuckles from the audience.
Joslove explained the concern that the Bexar County Appraisal District has not been giving the commercial industry a “fair shake.” The hospitality industry pays millions of dollars of property taxes a year in addition to the HOT. He asked the Mayors point blank if they were ready to make a pledge to not support a property tax increase. They all agreed.
Taylor: A solution may lie in improving and developing the City’s relationship with the appraisal district’s board, on which one member of City Council sits, Councilmember Roberto Treviño (D1). “I have worked on that a little bit in the past but I welcome the opportunity to step up and work more closely on that.” Taylor pledged to reject property tax increases.
Note: The board hires the chief appraiser and sets the budget, but members “have no authority to set values or appraisal methods. The chief appraiser carries out the appraisal district’s legal duties, hires the staff, makes the appraisals and operates the appraisal office.
Adkisson: Go for it. “Since the City has four sources of revenue, I think it’s pretty easy to throw one overboard if you want to.” The other sources City sales tax, court busts and fines, and CPS Energy. “CPS Energy has been the savior of City budgets. If you don’t have enough money, CPS (Energy) can ante up and save the day and they have countless times.”
“Should we ask if you support an increase in the utility rate?” Joslove asked. The audience erupted in nervous laughter. Adkisson shrugged but didn’t answer. “I’ll take that as an undecided,” Joslove said.
Van de Putte: “We are blessed with a rising economy, there is no need (to increase property taxes).” She said it’s not necessarily the district that is the problem, it’s the appeals process that is broken. “If you’re a small business owner … you don’t have an (accessible) avenue to fight.”
Villarreal: During his tenure at the state Legislature, “there were two members of the Legislature who for the last decade have worked to make the appraisal process more taxpayer friendly; myself and a gentlemen named John Otto (R-Dayton),” he said. “(San Antonio has) a particular problem with the Chief Appraiser (Michael Amezquita) who really challenges particularly our commercial property owners classifying income as assets that can be taxed.” He would appoint a board chair that would select an appraiser that is more business friendly and keep a “lid” on property taxes.
(See top section for Taylor’s response.)
Separate Wage Provisions for Private Sector
Minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, is set by the federal government, states can raise that rate, but must honor that minimum. For instance, Texas’ minimum wage is set at the federal rate and Washington is $9.47.
“There’s an effort by some cities to try to repeal the (law) that prohibits them from setting private sector wages,” “It’s in the Austin legislative program to try to repeal the ban on setting wages at the local level.”
Cities and counties may not pass separate wage provisions that regulate the private sector
“It’s not that we don’t pay a living wage or that we don’t want to pay above minimum wage, we don’t want to have those wages set by every local government and have wages other than what the market would bear,” Joslove explained. “If they want to set the wages for the public sector that’s within their prerogative.”
All candidates agreed that local governments should not set private sector wages.
“If there is a runoff, who do you think your opponent will be?”
(Asked by John Clamp, executive director of the San Antonio Hotel and Lodging Association and former City Council member.)
Adkisson and Taylor both said Van de Putte is the strongest competitor.
Van de Putte and Villarreal declined to answer, but both said that they’d be honored to run against any of the other three contenders.
Early voting will be held on weekdays April 27-May 5. Click here for voter registration information.
San Antonio’s Economic Imperative: Education & Workforce Development (by Leticia Van de Putte)
San Antonio’s Economy Requires 21st Century Skills (by Mike Villarreal)