San Antonio City Council unanimously approved a $2.5 billion budget for fiscal year 2017 Thursday morning that includes increased funding for streets and sidewalks, more police officers, increased minimum wages for City employees, benefits for Council aides, funding for new Smart City initiatives, and a more aggressive commitment to the City’s new comprehensive master plan, SA Tomorrow.
But that’s not even half of it – dozens of other departments, programs, and projects are funded through the next fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1. Council members and City staff emphasized that, while it can’t fund every need and want in the city, the budget balances fiscal responsibility and initiatives that will further boost San Antonio’s bid to become a “world class” city. All this was possible without increasing the property tax rate, which hasn’t gone up in 24 years and has been decreased four times in the last decade. Each Council member joined the “parade” of praise, as Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) put it, for City Manager Sheryl Sculley and the Budget Department staff.
The finalized budget will be available on the City’s website on Oct. 1.
A related vote by Council on Thursday also expanded the boundaries of the controversial Vacant Building Ordinance, which penalizes property owners for neglecting empty buildings. Some property owners have lobbied against the ordinance that they say punishes them for the poor real estate market in some inner city neighborhoods. The action taken today expands the ordinances’ boundaries from 35 sq. miles to 109 sq. miles.
After months of public input meetings and weeks of Council work sessions and briefings, next year’s budget slightly increases funding for streets and infrastructure overall, allocating $64 million for streets and $15 million for sidewalks.
COPS/Metro Alliance again led the successful charge to increase the minimum hourly wage for City employees from $13 to $13.75. Last year, it was increased from $11.70. As a “last request” of his colleagues, Councilman Ray Lopez (D6) called for continued dedication to the “path to $15.” This will be Lopez’s last budget discussion since he was first elected to represent District 6 in 2009.
Bexar County also increased its minimum wage to $13.75 earlier this week.
Thanks to City and federal funding, the San Antonio Police Department will add 32 more police officers. Talk of the City’s collective bargaining agreement with the police union was notably absent from this week’s talks after more than two years of the contract looming large over budget discussions. The contract, which saves the City money by slightly decreasing the degree to which it covers healthcare benefits, was approved last month amid concerns over its language regarding disciplinary procedures for officers and financial implications that may eventually lead public safety spending to take up more than 66% of the General Fund.
The budget does not add another 12-member EMT unit to the Fire Department’s budget as the firefighter union has not yet come to the negotiating table amid a pending City lawsuit against the contract’s 10-year evergreen clause.
Councilman Joe Krier (D9) reiterated that he does not support spending nearly $1.7 million on a two-year allocation for the implementation of the SA Tomorrow comprehensive master plan. Krier said he would rather see existing staff begin the needed regional and community plans and then ask for more funding as needed throughout the process.
Most Council members supported the budget amendment that allows for a more “aggressive” implementation schedule. Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), who served as a tri-chair of the SA Tomorrow planning process, said the Planning Department essentially already did exactly what Krier proposed.
“They told us what they need. The regional planning and community planning that needs to be done is now going into specific land use compatibility issues,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report after the vote. “It’s in City Council’s court to implement the City’s plan. Our first action is to fund the mechanisms that make the plan possible.”
Speaking on the dais before the vote to the smattering of City staff and citizens in the audience in Council chambers, Nirenberg outlined his own concerns which included this and future budgets emphasizing workforce development of social agencies/nonprofits at the expense of so-called “community safety net” agencies; the depletion of the City’s Capital Budget contingency fund; and the future increased costs and eight-year evergreen clause included the police union contract.
The $3.4 million capital contingency fund will be used for four different projects over the next year including a contribution to Child Safe’s new headquarters building, a new thoroughfare in the Southside near Brooks City Base, park improvements in District 7, and property acquisition in District 6.
“We’re using that now, but we will manage that budget over the course of the year,” Sculley told reporters after the vote. “As we have savings in our capital project, then those funds will become available … if we need some additional spending on the capital budget.”
The General Fund’s contingency budget of $1 million will remain untouched at the beginning of the year to be used for unexpected or emergency allocations.
Though there was talk Wednesday of removing funding entirely for Councilman Roberto Treviño’s San Antonio Under 1 Roof program in Districts 1 and 2, those line items remain for a total of $500,000 instead of the originally proposed $620,000.
“If there are new projects that the Council wants to fund but could not include in this adopted budget and we have some additional revenue (for the mid-year budget review), then the Council can add those projects at that time,” Sculley said.
Top image: City Manager Sheryl Sculley talks to reporters after City Council approved the fiscal year 2017 City Budget on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016. Photo by Iris Dimmick.