Three months ago, local officials were happy to hear they would receive $25 million in federal funds to reimburse Bexar County for some of what it spent developing the Mission Reach project on the San Antonio River.
But earlier this month, they found out the size of that reimbursement had shrunk drastically. In its 2019 fiscal year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers intends to reimburse local governments only about $4.4 million for the Mission Reach, according to its 2019 work plan.
“That was a bit of a balloon-deflater,” said Darrell Brownlow, chair of the San Antonio River Authority board of directors, at the board’s December meeting Wednesday.
The Mission Reach was the massive redesign of the San Antonio River on the South Side that turned what was basically a drainage channel into functioning wildlife habitat and park space. A concrete trail lined with public art connected the city’s Spanish colonial missions. Work began in 2008 and was completed in 2013.
Bexar County contributed $126.5 million to the project, said Brian Mast, the river authority’s manager of intergovernmental relations. Most of the county’s contribution came from a voter-approved bond in 2008.
The City contributed another $6.5 million, along with $4.7 million from the San Antonio River Foundation, a nonprofit affiliated with the river authority, Mast confirmed. The San Antonio Water System provided another $6 million in funding for utility relocations, according to an online fact sheet.
Of the $126.5 million contributed by the county, $61.3 million was eligible for reimbursement from the Corps, Mast said. Since 2015, the Corps, whose budget is set by Congress, has paid back $30.8 million, not including the $4.4 million in fiscal year 2019.
Another roughly $26 million remains to be reimbursed, Mast said.
Mast said he isn’t certain what caused the decrease in the reimbursement figure but there’s a good chance the reduced funding came down to the change of a single word in an appropriations bill from “and” to “or.”
Mast and river authority Assistant General Manager Steve Graham said the new language in the appropriations bill allowed the Corps to allocate more of the $25 million to other communities instead of to San Antonio alone.
The Corp’s work plan for fiscal year 2019 includes more funding for Buffalo Bayou and Cedar Bayou in the Houston area, among other areas in Texas affected by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, an instrumental figure in developing the Mission Reach, said local officials didn’t want to wait on federal funding to make the project a reality.
“If we’d waited on the feds, do you think we’d ever have got the south end of the river done?” Wolff said in a phone interview Thursday. “What’s happened in this town is all the money’s gone to the north and the south has always got screwed, and we were determined not to let that happen.”
The change in funding surprised local officials when the Corps released its work plan. In September, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo), whose district includes parts of eastern and southern Bexar County, had issued a press release announcing the $25 million in funding
The river authority held an event October with Cuellar, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Helotes) and House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Committee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) thanking them for their work on the funding.
On Friday, a spokesperson for Cuellar shared an Oct. 23 letter signed by Cuellar, along with five other San Antonio-area Congressmen, to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.
The urged Mulvaney to have the Corps reimburse Bexar County for its share of the Mission Reach, along with providing $1.1 million for engineering and design funds to help restore the Westside Creeks.
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In an emailed statement, Cuellar said he has worked hard to secure $35.2 million in total reimbursements from fiscal year 2016 through 2019, “increasing recreational and economic benefits of local waterways in San Antonio.”
“Unfortunately, due to an increase of reimbursement projects in fiscal year 2019, according to the [Corps] when contacted by our office, more funding was allocated towards disaster relief for affected areas,” Cuellar said. “I will continue to work to secure funding through the appropriations process, as I have in the past, to ensure that Mission Reach receives the reimbursements it deserves.”