Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The proposed $850 million 2017 City bond was the topic of lively, at times heated, debate Wednesday night as more than 75 citizens listened to political players defend and challenge the largest bond package in San Antonio’s history.
OneSA, the private political action committee formed to promote the six bond propositions that voters will see on their May 6 ballot, had two representatives on stage for the panel discussion at Alamo Beer Company: Campaign Manager Christian Archer and Tri-Chair Carri Baker.
Panelist Carlton Soules, a Republican political consultant who is working on mayoral candidate Manuel Medina’s campaign, is not “anti-bond,” he told the crowd gathered at the brewery, but wants to make “facts about the bond you may not be aware of” available to the public. George Rodriguez, the former head of the local Tea Party and staunch critic of the bond, had agreed to sit on the panel Wednesday night, but did not attend.
Without raising taxes, the bond would fund critical infrastructure projects across the city, Archer said, and leverages about $350 million in private, state, county, and federal funds.
“It’s a $1.2 billion bond, actually,” he said.
Sure, there wasn’t a property tax rate increase this year, Soules said, but “your taxes are going to pay for this and they may go up or down. … Nothing is free, it is your tax dollars, nobody believe we’re getting $850 million for free.”
The Bond and Brew discussion was the latest installment of the Rivard Report‘s Pints and Politics event series co-sponsored by Alamo Beer Company and moderated by Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard.
Medina and his campaign has compared the bond to “maxing out the city’s credit card,” Archer pointed out, but that’s the “complete opposite [portrayal] of our financial footing in San Antonio.”
San Antonio’s coveted Triple A bond rating means lower borrowing costs and decreased interest expense, Baker explained. “And we’re 80% below [local and state] debt cap.”
Public investment sparks private investment, Archer said, adding that CAVErs (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) fail to see the long-term return on investments.
When the city was debating whether to invest millions in what is now the Museum Reach of the River Walk, the CAVErs were out in full force, he said. But because of the river improvement project, the Pearl Brewery was transformed into a thriving hub of commercial and residential activity that only continues to grow.
This is not the time to “recoil back and become isolationist,” Archer said.
The bond includes:
- $445,263,000 for Streets, Bridges, and Sidewalks Improvements (Proposition 1)
- $138,988,000 for Drainage and Flood Control Improvements (Proposition 2)
- $187,313,000 for Parks, Recreation, and Open Space Improvements (Proposition 3)
- $24,025,000 for Library and Cultural Facilities Improvements (Proposition 4)
- $34,411,000 for Public Safety Facilities Improvements (Proposition 5)
- $20,000,000 for Neighborhood Improvements, facilitating affordable housing in blighted areas (Proposition 6)
About 70% of the bond is going to basic infrastructure projects.
The panelists agreed that San Antonio needs billions of dollars worth of new or repaired streets and sidewalks. Where they differ is how to balance the “needs and wants,” Soules said – “needs” such as streets and drainage and park amenities, “wants” such as Hardberger Park’s land bridge.
About 47% of the bond is made up of what the City calls “citywide” projects, those that affect/contribute to all Council districts, he said. In the previous bond, only 20% of projects were considered citywide. He is concerned that some Council districts aren’t getting their fair share and would like to see the City go back to an 80/20 model: 80% split evenly between the 10 districts and 20% citywide.
Soules has a detailed outline of his analysis of the bond available on his website.
But citywide projects directly contribute to the districts they are located in, Baker replied, pointing to the more than $12 million proposed to enhance the areas surrounding the Spanish-colonial Missions and emerging World Heritage district.
“Yes, it’s a citywide project, but also important to District 3,” she said.
Several audience members spoke to the panel, including Joaquinn “Joc” Arch, who lives in Stone Oak but owns a business on the Eastside, where he’s from.
“I’m one of those kids that left [the Eastside],” Arch said. “I never saw any of those dollars come east.”
This bond starts to rectify decades of neglect and disinvestment on the historically black side of town, he said, adding that you don’t have to live in a district to care about it.
“If you say no to this bond, you shut the door on me … an entrepreneur,” Arch said.
Archer and Baker pointed to the increased citizen engagement and feedback that was collected for the 2017 bond compared to previous years. About 1,400 citizens showed up to lengthy bond committee meetings over a three-month span late last year.
“This has been the most open, the most transparent, and sought out the most public input,” Baker said.
Soules challenged the bureaucratic structure and efficiency of the meetings, noting that the 33-member committees had little time to actually engage with the community.
This comment elicited a strong response from Brian Dillard, an Eastside community leader who was co-chair of the parks bond committee.
“It’s bullshit that you’re sitting up here spewing all this because you weren’t at the meetings,” Dillard said. Soules did not attend the typically four-hour meetings that each hosted dozens of committee members and citizens. “Don’t diminish those efforts, man.”
At first, Dillard was opposed to the land bridge that would connect the two sides of Hardberger Park over Wurzbach Parkway. After hearing more about the project and how it would serve nature and park goers, his opinion changed to support it.
Soules’ calculations about citywide and district funding totals are worthless without such context, Dillard said.
Throughout the evening, Soules reminded the crowd that he is not opposed to bonds. He is concerned about the “allocation of resources within this bond and some pet projects.”
He’d like to see voters reject this bond and come up with a smaller bond that evenly distributes funding to each district, but he admitted that the bond will likely pass as is.
“If it passes, I’m going to be okay,” he said. “The people will have spoken… but they’ll have spoken knowing an alternative viewpoint.”