An agenda item on an ordinance authorizing a grant application the City has made for 26 years would ordinarily prompt little or no discussion from City Council members, but one on Thursday illustrated how spending on items related to policing are being examined carefully.

Protesters, advocates, journalists, voters, and City Council members themselves are scrutinizing spending on police and public safety expenditures after calls for reform reverberate across the U.S. – started by the death of a black man, George Floyd, while in Minneapolis police custody.

That was one of the reasons why Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2) wanted to talk about the 11th item on Thursday’s agenda, ordinance No. 20-3069. The ordinance, which allows the City to apply for an $800,000 grant to fund a team of police officers to prevent and solve vehicle thefts, could lead to the City contributing nearly $475,000 of its own money towards the team in matching funds.

Andrews-Sullivan and other council members dug into the details of the grant: what it funds (24 SAPD positions and four Bexar County Sheriff’s Office positions), its purpose (preventing vehicle thefts and apprehending thieves), and why it’s needed (7,800 vehicles were stolen in San Antonio last year).

It was a continuation of the conversation Council had Wednesday, as most council members signaled support for a more holistic approach to improving public safety that may mean shifting money from the police department to social service agencies.

While fewer than five people showed up in support of reform of some kind on Thursday, protests in the streets and at other Council meetings have occurred in San Antonio since May 30.

“I think we’ll probably have to start getting used to the questions for most things that have to do with the police department,” said Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7). “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I agree that we should do everything to pursue the grant funding. … The question here at least for me is the matching funds. It’s a lot of money from our budget and we know that police officers are some of the highest paid City employees that we have. … When we use that money, we want to make sure that we use it as efficiently as possible.”

City Manager Erik Walsh said more effort will be made to make sure the agenda clearly describes what Council is actually voting on, the fiscal impact, and what decisions have already been made by other groups or previous council votes.

“Aside from car thieves, can you think of anybody who would oppose this?” Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) asked Police Chief William McManus.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” McManus said.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), who does not support “defunding” or restructuring the San Antonio Police Department, admonished Council for using so much time to question the grant.

“I am really looking forward to this year’s budget discussions, because if it’s taking this long just to apply for a grant where we’re getting this kind of money to help us solve a problem … Erik, we might as well put an additional six months [of discussion] on this year’s budget process,” Perry said. “I hope we get these kinds of discussions on a lot of different areas within the City’s budget and scrutiny that should be applied to other areas … not just on the police department.”

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Perry asked McManus for more details about the theft program, including how San Antonio compares to other cities in rates of car theft. That information wasn’t readily available.

As the most conservative and often the lone “no” vote on the dais, Perry often questions the return on investment of public dollars – but that scrutiny is usually aimed at social service programs.

He has criticized hiring a consultant to develop a homelessness strategic plan. Ultimately, he voted in favor of that contract. Thursday’s vote for the grant application was also approved unanimously.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he expects even more close examinations of public spending.

“I think the public expects that kind of scrutiny on everything that we do,” he told reporters after the meeting. “As it relates to the overall conversation about how we find a healthy balance in our city budgets across the country and how we build safety through investment in communities that people want to see – that’s an ongoing discussion. And it’s not simply about one grant, it’s about the whole long-view of City budget.”

While 2020 is expected by to be remembered for sickness and pain, Nirenberg said he’s an optimist.

“I always see opportunity in situations like this,” he said. “The truth is it’s been a reckoning. It’s been a reckoning in many ways for our nation and for our cities, and we can use that to build a stronger, more resilient, more equitable community.

“Everyone is attentive now to how we manage our very scarce resources, and it’s also exposed a foundation in this community about how our economic structures have been built and who it leaves out.”

As some residents appear to want the government and police departments to re-think the causes of crime and what public safety means, the City of San Antonio took a nearly $200 million hit to its fiscal year 2020 budget as the coronavirus pandemic caused revenue to plummet. Further cuts are anticipated in 2021’s budget as a new budget director, Scott Huizenga, officially starts his new job Monday.

How he shapes the budget – and whether money is shifted from public safety and to what degree – depends on the instructions Huizenga gets from City Council, he said.

“Coming in, myself and my office, I don’t think we have any preconceived notions of where that discussion’s going to go, but obviously that will be a huge priority in the upcoming budget and we’re going to pay close attention to what the tenor of the Council is,” said Huizenga.

San Antonio’s fiscal year starts Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 31. City Council will review a draft budget, also known as a trial budget, on June 18. Typically a draft isn’t presented until August, after Council’s budget goal-setting session and July break, but the process has been expedited amid the pandemic.

As a budget analyst, staffer, and director in Kansas City, Huizenga said he experienced the Great Recession of 2008 and its aftermath. “There was a series of very hard reductions,” he said. “… [The Great Recession] is the best basis we have for comparison, but it is very different.”

Council also voted unanimously to extend indefinitely the mayor’s eighth declaration of a public health emergency order, which essentially affirms that it is in alignment with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide order.

If daily new case counts and the severity of COVID-19 cases continue to increase over the coming weeks, there will be a legal debate about whether the City can re-close certain sectors, Nirenberg said.

The case count increase is due to a backlog of test results from private firms, he said, “but we knew there was going to be an increase in transmission as we see activities and businesses open up.

“We just have to manage that. If there is any kind of retrenchment that needs to occur locally or across the state, that’s a bridge that we have yet to cross. But we’ll be ready if we do.”

Much of the guidance that was included in the previous stay-at-home order regrading face coverings and antibody tests can now be found in a health directive issued by the City’s Metropolitan Health District.

“As businesses reopen, residents return to work and public health professionals closely monitor several progress and warning indicators, residents are advised to follow health guidelines to protect themselves and their families and ensure a safe and healthy environment for all San Antonians,” health officials wrote in a press release.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com