UPDATE: City Council approved the $2.5 Billion city budget on Thursday. Click here to read more.
Every one of the 10 San Antonio City Council districts has tens of millions of dollars in immediate infrastructure needs like sidewalks, better streets and drainage, lighting and park maintenance. Unfortunately, there is never enough discretionary funding to even remotely address all these needs, one reason why the cost of public safety health insurance became such a looming issue as the City and unions opened negotiations last year on a new collective bargaining agreement.
Now, in the space of three days, City staff has pared down $41.6 million in capital projects for fiscal year 2016 proposed by the 10 Council representatives and Mayor Ivy Taylor to the available almost $5.6 million in projects that City Manager Sheryl Sculley said could be accommodated in the new budget that comes before City Council for a vote Thursday.
The projects that appear to have survived the process include $500,000 for the Good Samaritan Veterans Outreach and Transition Center, and $450,000 to help support a CentroMed clinic in District 4.
One significant proposal that did not make the cut: $4.8 million for improvements on the Commerce Street Bridge between Frio and Colorado streets. Instead, City staff recommended that the entire $9 million bridge project be considered for the city's 2017 bond program.
That suggestion prompted Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5), who represents the city's Westside, to lead a brief discussion about balancing inner-city needs with those in more affluent areas such as Stone Oak. Councilmember Joe Krier (D9), who represents the Stone Oak area, won approval for a $1 million allocation to complete Hardy Oak Boulevard through the Steubing Ranch property. Hardy Oak will link Stone Oak Parkway and Knights Cross, and hopefully alleviate some of the city's worst surface street traffic congestion.
Gonzales said she was "grateful" to see some of her priority projects included for funding in 2016, such as $625,000 for park improvements in District 5. She had pushed the Commerce Street Bridge as a significant gateway project for her community in the council's Tuesday work session.
"I know we're all trying to get money for our projects," Gonzales told her colleagues. "I am disappointed, though, to see District 9 gets $1 million, and that's as we talk about equity of funding around the city."
The Hardy Oak extension is the lone proposed capital project for District 9 in 2016. Krier defended it, saying he project merited immediate attention. The $1 million represents 30% of the city's participation in the Hardy Oak project. The developer will fund the remainder.
"It was our district's top priority for capital projects," Krier said. "It's a great private-public project that will be a great return on our investment and it meets our community's needs."
Mike Frisbie, director of the city's Transportation and Capital Improvements Department, said the Hardy Oak extension would help to open the immediate area to more development.
There remains a $306,800 balance between the final list of proposed projects and the total funds available to support them. Gonzales asked if that money could be included among the final 2016 budget amendments to help boost the Commerce Street bridge or any other project in her district that did not make the cut. Some preliminary engineering work has taken place on the Commerce Street project, but it will require design and master planning work before construction can begin.
Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) suggested using some or all of the remaining $306,800 toward improved street lighting, at a cost of $20,000 per council district. For now, City staff has recommended deferring $220,000 for lighting improvements in future years. Mayor Ivy Taylor and Councilmember Ray Lopez (D6) spoke in favor of using the uncommitted funds for a pressing pre-determined infrastructure need that could impact the entire city, such as improved lighting.
Lopez said spreading the money across districts would cater to everyone without leaving any one district out of the money pool. Gonzales unconvinced that such an approach solved problems.
"I, too, would like to see more and better community lighting in all of our districts," she said. "But I think there was a spirit to this exercise about including all the projects we could best fund."
Taylor said she appreciated discussing how one or two parts of the city should not feel so slighted come budget time.
"I think we need to figure out how better to have these conversations that make us feel awkward," the Mayor said. "It's a big balancing act, meeting needs across the city. But we just need to continue to have these conversations.
Other notable projects that could see funding in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 include:
- $500,000 to help stabilize the roof atop the former Lerma's Nite Club in District 1.
- $1 million for gateway signage for Stinson Airport in District 3.
- $1 million to improve the connection between Mission Road and Stinson.
- $1.8 million to upgrade Port San Antonio for site development in District 4.
- $350,000 for sub-freeway public parking along U.S. 281 between Brooklyn Avenue and 9th Street in District 2.
City staff suggested using non-restricted funds to support a few of the projects proposed for 2016 funding. Restricted funds would fund the two Stinson-related projects, the Port San Antonio project, and the U.S. 281 parking spaces.
City staff also included in capital projects San Antonio's total contribution of $449,500 for the Lone Star Rail project. This includes $50,000 from the city's proposed general fund budget.
The council on Thursday will vote on the money, formally committing the city to take part in a planned regional commuter rail system linking San Antonio and Austin. The council also will vote on a one-year contract with Lone Star Rail District (LSRD), the rail line's governing agency, to determine how the money will be spent towards staffing and consulting services during the first year. The Lone Star Rail Board of Directors will meet Friday to vote on the same one-year pact with San Antonio. Later this fall, the San Antonio council will consider a 36-year operating and maintenance agreement between the city and LSRD.
Council members complimented Sculley and her colleagues for transforming their wish list into what Councilmember Mike Gallagher (D10) called "a good road map to solve our problems."
Lopez said many of the capital projects demonstrate that local elected officials are listening to constituents about basic infrastructure concerns.
"It's not always reflected in budget amendments, but it is reflected in the final budget," Lopez said. "There's an incredibly significant amount of dollars we're putting into streets and drainage. We are listening to what (the public) is saying."
The council will be provided with more details about the final proposed capital projects when it convenes at 9 a.m. on Thursday at City Hall for final budget deliberation.
*Top image: Mayor Ivy Taylor speaks during a previous B Session. File photo by Iris Dimmick..